Finding Nemo

Starring:
  • Albert "Even Woody Allen Still Makes Funny Movies Every Once in a While" Brooks
  • Anne Heche's Ex
  • The Green Goblin

 

 
Directed by The Fine Folks at Pixar

"Oh yes, I've seen Wild Side. You're right, Ellen, you look a lot better on top of Anne than that Asian chick."

A Story For Fish Tank Kids

When we think of kid's movies, we usually think of goofy gags and happy endings. But consider some of the moments that outlast our childhoods: the death of Bambi's mother, E.T. leaving Elliot, the struggle of race and friendship between The Fox and the Hound. The notion that kids movies have to goofy in every frame is bogus, more immature than the film's intended audience. Children's movies need bright colors, goofy gags, lots of action, and a happy ending—but the very best, which is to say mature, children's films have as much arc and variety as any other movie. Think of Fantasia, Beauty and the Beast, or even the internment camps of Chicken Run: all cloudy days compared to, say, Shrek. A children's film doesn't need a Bergmanesque plot structure, but this does not mean that the themes can't have depth beyond the kiddie plot: 1999's The Iron Giant comes to mind, as does Pinocchio, or the search for meaning and delusions of grandeur contained in both Toy Story movies.

That said, the first five minutes of Finding Nemo are the most audacious of any digitally animated film. I don't want to give away too much plot; let's just say that when time skips ahead, dad Marlin is fussing his only son Nemo off to school. Usually, overly-fussy parents are the butts of jokes and derision, but we are drawn to Marlin's protective instincts because of the fright felt in the opening—a necessary scene that allows dad more character arc without being artificial. Marlin ushers the wide-eyed Nemo to school, careful to note that Nemo's under-developed fin is his "lucky" flipper. Nemo is anxious to make friends and otherwise "go to school"—a wonderland of adventure, mystery, and something called "learning." Marlin, of course, is not pleased with the school's curriculum, which involves exploring different parts of the Great Barrier Reef. Marlin's reluctance to allow Nemo to go on a field trip sparks rebellion, resulting in his capture and entrapment in a tank adorning a dentist's office in Sydney.

The bulk of the movie follows Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his new friend Dory (Ellen Degeneres) and their odyssey to save Nemo. Along the way, Marlin and Dory battle sharks struggling with their twelve-step programs ("Fish are friends, not food"), barracudas, and benign jellyfish whose stingers glow like the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Back in the tank, Nemo and his fellow captives attempt a great escape from the tank, involving an elaborate strategy of clogging the filter to force a cleaning and pushing the baggy out the window into the harbor. It's the sort of plot that makes no sense to describe, but is perfectly rational with the internal logic of the movie—like the scream harnessing in Monsters, Inc. or superhero ambitions of Buzz Lightyear.

Plot aside, the movie is a little preachy in its approach to parenting. Like many animated films, Finding Nemo imagines another world as if it's the suburbia occupied by its audience. Marlin's overparenting is directed at the parents who just coughed up fifty bucks (after refreshments) to take the kids to the movies. The lesson, of course, is that we have to let kids discover things on their own, that we can't shelter them forever. It's a little clichéd, I know, and the movie does pour it on thickly: Marlin rides the East Australian Current and hitches a ride with some surfer turtles, who teach him that you have to "let the little dudes go" and "they'll get the hang of it!" That sounds a bit like the detached, California parenting that spawned John Walker Lindh. Still, the greatest danger to today's kids isn't terrorism, but the smothering, protective, conservative parenting of the SUV generation.

The ocean scenery fits into the idea. Even as recently as my childhood, American yards were fenceless, and neighborhoods were meant to explored. We roamed the town without soccer schedules or playdates, just as little Nemo yearns to swim the ocean, uncovering mysteries beneath seashells and making friends with fish that aren't his species. Nemo's tank is the perfect metaphor for today's kids, whose lives are entrapped in a small world with limited opportunity to experience life, whose fishbowl lives are on their parents' display. They're too young to realize it now, but their parents aren't, and they're both sitting in the theater together. I remember when even the theater wasn't a confinement, complete with a full playground right below the drive-in screen, the opening cartoon a signal to return to our parent's station wagons and open-bed trucks. I think it no coincidence that Pixar's opening graphics for Monsters, Inc. are throwbacks to that era, or that Pixar now treats us to a free short before the main feature. Pixar respects both kids and parents—which cannot be said for certain big green ogres of animation. Finding Nemo is the darkest, most ambitious film in the Pixar canon, not to mention the most relevant—and for that, it has my utmost respect.

The Pitch:
2 Monsters, Inc.
Plus
2 Jaws
Equals
4 Finding Nemo
See It For:

Pixar's subtle metaphor for the treatment they receive from Disney execs.