For a while, Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo was the most commercially popular of the Pixar films, but it was always one of my least favorites – which, according to the Theory of Pixar Relativity, is a more reductive way of saying my world was only slightly less rocked by it. When I saw it in 2003, the movie was gorgeous to look at, and the characters were uniformly well-written and performed quite beautifully. But in comparison to the previous Pixar works I loved like Toy Story 2 and Monsters Inc, and in light of the unquestionable brilliance of future films like Ratatouille, The Incredibles and WALL-E, Finding Nemo never really had a chance to grow in my estimation.
It is for that reason why I was nevertheless excited for the completely unnecessary 3D rerelease of Finding Nemo. After all, a lot has changed since it became the first Pixar film to break the $300 million barrier in the box office. I’ve done some growing up, both as a person and as a film fan. I’ve become more appreciative and knowledgeable of animation in general, being able to appreciate its practitioners not merely as skilled craftsmen, but as true artists. Most importantly, with the disappointingly passable Brave, the glee-killing Cars 2 and Stanton’s live-action debacle John Carter still fresh in my mind, I have been yearning for a Pixar movie that was, if not top-tier Pixar in my mind, at least a sure thing.
As expected, Finding Nemo is as enjoyable as I remembered it being. What I did not expect was to find a film a far richer and more deeply compelling than the one I saw nine years ago. While I still prefer many of the studio’s other efforts (Stanton’s own WALL-E, to me, is the apex of American animation), I will never again vulgarly dismiss it as a middling effort from Pixar. This story about a clown-fish named Marlin traversing the ocean, attempting to rescue his kidnapped son Nemo from life as a pet fish, is a rousing adventure, a sweet-natured movie about friendship, and a more than affecting father-and-son fable. I came in expecting the modest entertainment I remembered it to be. I walked out with tears.
What is it that about Finding Nemo this time that swayed me? As much as it pains me not to approach the movie on its own terms, it’s hard not to argue for the Nemo’s greatness by highlighting the deep affection I’ve cultivated for the studio’s storytelling prowess. Over the last decade, as they were belting out one masterpiece after another, it became increasingly clear just how dedicated the filmmakers were to the thorough conception their ideas, the clarity of their narratives and the richness of their characters. Perhaps, in 2003, I was too naive to recognize what they were doing, but Finding Nemo is decidedly as emblematic of those values as any other film they have made.
Starting with clarity of conception, it is truly remarkable just how expansive Nemo’s oceanic universe truly is. We see creatures of every kind scurrying across the ocean depths, and each one scurries with seeming purpose, perfectly adapted both to their natural settings and to the anthropomorphized world Andrew Stanton has invented. Every setting and every scenario – be it a happy community of sea creatures living peacefully in a coral reef, a trio of vegetarian sharks, a crew of laid-back turtles riding the East Australian Current or a band of fish utilizing their environment to escape their personal Alcatraz – that is, a fish tank in a Sydney dentist’s office – every grain of salt in Stanton’s ocean feels explored to its fullest potential.
The biggest surprise to the world of Finding Nemo, however, is how fraught with danger it is. Most kid-friendly pictures are content with keeping the story colorful and cute, without ratcheting up the stakes or a sense of danger to a point where some children might be scared. This is Pixar at its most vividly colorful, and there are countless moments of cuteness, but Stanton brilliantly never wants the viewer to forget the evolutionary desire of virtually everything in that ocean to turn our heroes into food. From their beautiful-yet-terrifying encounters with pink jellyfish or their improbably escape from that carnivorous anglerfish, it’s actually quite remarkable to think of how often Marlin and his lovably dingbatty friend Dory find themselves on the brink of death. It’s remarkable and it’s unnerving, but it sends a palpable jolt of energy throughout the narrative.
Speaking of narrative, it is remarkable how cleanly Marlin and Dory’s journey to rescue Nemo adheres to – and plays with – the conventions of the Nemo-verse. As if it were inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, this pilgrimage from the middle of the ocean to Sydney Harbor bounces from one episode to another, meeting friends and foes along the way. But each chance encounter with all those different creatures pushes forward either the plot or the characters. In some instances, like a late scene when Marlin is asked to trust Dory’s whale-language aptitude, it pushes both. Couple that economy of plot with the film’s seemingly constant sense of danger, many of the sequences we see – like when Dory and Marlin have to escape from those same vegetarian sharks or when they work with hundreds of fish to escape a fisherman’s net – and Finding Nemo packs more tension and dynamism than some of the better action films out there.
But the emotional core of Finding Nemo, and the reason why it remains such a moving film, are the wonderful characters who lead us every step of the way. With astonishing voice work from Albert Brooks, Alexander Gould and the completely unforgettable Ellen Degeneres (seriously, there is a reason why she garnered Oscar buzz for this movie), every interaction between Dory and Marlin, between Marlin and Nemo, is loaded with pathos and is defined by each individual’s idiosyncrasies, agendas and flaws. Expressing total surprise at the comparatively more mature approach Pixar takes to characterization in a “children’s film” has become a total cliché by now, but it warrants repeating. Finding Nemo is as strong a reminder of Pixar’s willingness to turn great storytelling into a memorable and lucrative venture. Perhaps it’s for the best that the movie is rereleasing in the wake of Brave. While that movie was perfectly adequate, Finding Nemo reminds us of what we lovers of Pixar fell in love with.
But the best reason to revisit Finding Nemo has nothing to do with its Studio’s other efforts, and everything to do with the movie itself. Finding Nemo is a wonderful, wonderful movie. And one I promise never again to underestimate.
Bottom Line: The chance to revisit a great Pixar movie like Finding Nemo in theaters is ample reason to pay that 3D surcharge.