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Walt Would Approve
on October 18, 2003
Recently, I saw Albert Brooks on Late Night with David Letterman, talking about Finding Nemo. Brooks, who stars as the voice of Marlon, the daddy fish, had taken his son (who, I believe was about five years old, the equivalent human age of Nemo), to the premiere. After about five minutes, Brooks said his son leaned over to him, and quietly said, the way a grownup might, "I cannot watch this movie," and walked out. Late in the movie, the son returned, having obviously been crying. Leaning over, Brooks assured his son, "You are not Nemo."
Such is the power of this fish story about father and son clownfish who become separated, and must struggle to find their way back to each other. Marlon is a loving but neurotic and overprotective father; Nemo is a frustrated young fish who wants to be independent and see the world, and resents his father for preventing him from doing so. We see an ocean (read: the world) that is a terrible, heartless, and yet joyous place that we frail fish must confront, as best we can, because there's no alternative.
The animation was done by the wonderful folks from Pixar, who are the closest thing to the reincarnation of Walt Disney. There is simply no comparison between the animation of the typical, visually flat, politically correct, contemporary animated movie (many of which are produced by Walt Disney Pictures!) and Nemo. In Nemo, the ocean floor looks like the ocean. And the characters are all ... characters. They are all physically distinctive, wonderfully written, and performed by gifted actors who - if you'll pardon the cliché - will alternately make you laugh and cry. Of particular note are Barry Humphries as Bruce the Shark, Geoffrey Rush as Nigel the Pelican, Willem Dafoe as Gill, Allison Janney as Peach, and of course, young Alexander Gould as Nemo. Ellen Degeneres, in particular, steals every scene she's in, as Dory, a gregarious fish whose memory leaks like a sieve. But this is Albert Brooks' movie. The Academy should give this man a special Oscar for the most moving voice work my wife and I have ever heard.
Thomas Newman, of the musical Newman clan (Alfred, Lionel, Randy) has produced a score that is subtle and unobtrusive much of the time, but at dramatic moments takes over, and is more impressive, with repeated viewings. He deserves his fifth Oscar nomination for Nemo.
Andrew Stanton's (Toy Story, Monsters, Inc.) screenplay, written with Bob Peterson and David Reynolds, brims with intelligence and wit (e.g., in an AA-style group of recovering - and frequently lapsing - sharks, the members intone, "I am a nice shark, not an eating machine.... Fish are friends, not food"), and Stanton's direction does not waste a scene. Every moment in Nemo will either charm you or move you. In fact, as my wife remarked, for all of its many comic scenes, this is one of the most moving movies you'll ever see. We've already seen it several times with our three-and-a-half-year-old son, who loves it, and yet with each new viewing, we notice things we'd previously missed.
Though I wish Nemo would win all of the big Oscars (Best Picture, Director, Screenplay), I doubt Academy voters will choose it over its live-action competition. And yet, I will be very surprised, if a better picture -- live action or animated -- is released this year. Finding Nemo is truly a find.
Originally published in The Critical Critic, October 17, 2003.