‘Finding Nemo’: THR’s 2003 Review

On May 30, 2003, Pixar unveiled ‘Finding Nemo’ in theaters.

On May 30, 2003, Pixar unveiled Finding Nemo, which opened to $70 million in its first weekend, a then record debut for an animated title. The film went on to win the best animated feature Oscar at the 76th Academy Awards. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below: 

Diving into their most realistic and ambitious setting yet, the talents at Pixar have produced an exhilarating fish story in the perfectly cast comic adventure Finding Nemo. Not as flat-out inventive as Monsters, Inc. or as sardonic as A Bug’s Life and the Toy Story pics, Nemo finds its own sparkling depths, achieving a less mechanical feel than its predecessors through a stripped-down, fluid narrative and new levels of visual nuance.

The Bottom Line

Diving into their most realistic and ambitious setting yet, the talents at Pixar have produced an exhilarating fish story in the perfectly cast comic adventure ‘Finding Nemo.’

Pixar vet Andrew Stanton demonstrates confidence and exuberance in his first stint at the helm, working from a script he co-wrote with Bob Peterson and David Reynolds. With the exception of toddlers who might find a few scary moments too intense, kids will get right into the flow of Nemo, while those viewers old enough to drive will appreciate the plentiful humor designed to sail right over kids’ heads — not least of which is the inspired chemistry between leads Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres. Disney is primed to make a whale of a splash at the summer box office.

The marine milieu calls for more visual delicacy and aural subtlety than in past Pixar features — challenges the filmmakers have met through the work of myriad technicians and artists. Before taking poetic license with their CG creations (real fish don’t have eyebrows), the animators and designers took lessons in ichthyology (among other things), to good effect. Their imagery captures not only the play of light through the ocean’s depths, but the texture of its roiling surface and the luminescence and character-defining locomotion of its inhabitants. Add to that Gary Rydstrom’s meticulous sound design and the grown-up music score by Thomas Newman, and the result is the most complex and fully realized environment of any Pixar film.

Nemo dazzles from the get-go, beginning with a pre-credits sequence that might prove more frightening to parents than kids, dramatizing as it does the notion that bad things can happen even in suburbia. Clown-fish couple Marlin and Coral (Brooks, Elizabeth Perkins) have just moved to a nice, quiet neighborhood of the Great Barrier Reef — a peaceful vista of jewel-toned sponges, anemones and sea grasses, and a good place to raise their 400 offspring, who will soon be hatching. Tragedy strikes, leaving Marlin widowed with one survivor in the fish nursery, whom he names Nemo and swears to protect always.

It’s no wonder that Marlin turns out to be a nervous, overprotective father who follows little Nemo (Alexander Gould) on his first day of, um, fish school. Nemo’s a spirited kid with an endearing flaw — a smaller right fin that flutters constantly — and a healthy sense of rebellion, which he takes to extremes in Dad’s anxious presence, venturing off the reef into open waters. A diver promptly snares him as an exotic specimen.

Propelled by his frantic search for Nemo, Marlin ventures farther than he’d ever dreamed of going, joined by good-hearted blue tang Dory (DeGeneres). She’s eager to help and unfazable, the perfect complement to Marlin’s neurotic timidity, however exasperating her continual lapses in short-term memory become. They’re two lost souls: He provides her with a purpose, and she lends the traumatized Marlin a newfound resilience, as well as being able to read the Sydney address on the mask the diver left behind. Their journey to the big city unfolds as a series of set pieces centering on encounters with would-be predators and helpful sea folk.

Nemo, meanwhile, is welcomed into a community of fish-tank eccentrics in a dentist’s office not far from Sydney Harbor. A scarred, self-possessed Moorish idol named Gill (Willem Dafoe) is the only one of Nemo’s tank mates who wasn’t born in a pet shop, and the wide-eyed youngster inspires him to devise the latest in a long series of ludicrous escape plans. The goal is to get Nemo home before the dentist presents him as a birthday gift to his terror of a niece (LuLu Ebeling), a deliciously funny concoction of brute force and braces.

There’s a built-in poignancy to the dynamic between son and single father that neither the script nor the actors overstate. That Nemo has no expectation his father will lift a fin to find him is the dark center of the story, setting in bright relief Marlin’s every dance with danger as he pursues his stolen child. There’s an especially perilous dash through a field of translucent pink jellyfish, culminating in a moment straight out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with Marlin struggling to keep Dory from falling into a deadly narcotic sleep. But it’s not all rough waters: They also luck into the good vibes of surfer-dude turtles who take them through the East Australian Current. Director Stanton is a standout as sea turtle Crush, a mellow dad who teaches Marlin a lesson or two about the parental art of letting go.

The whole cast is aces, with turns from such vibrant talents as Barry Humphries, playing the repentant leader of a self-help group for sharks who are trying to beat the fish-eating habit, and John Ratzenberger as an annoyingly helpful bunch of moonfish showoffs. Geoffrey Rush voices a Sydney pelican who’s well-versed in dental procedure, Allison Janney is a vigilant starfish, and Joe Ranft provides a French accent for a finicky shrimp.

But it’s the give-and-take between DeGeneres and Brooks that gives the saga its big heart. DeGeneres’ character was created with her in mind, so it makes sense that Dory is a fish with freckles, lips and a rueful smile. When, in an episode of lovely, freewheeling lunacy, she insists on communicating with a blue whale in its native language, the combination of vocal calisthenics and facial contortions is sublime.

Her goofy compassion would have only half the impact, however, without Brooks’ contrasting nebbish-turned-hero. It’s hard to imagine another actor who could deliver lines as angst-ridden and deliriously funny. This is, after all, the tale of a father who not only transcends fear to find his son against all odds, but who learns how to tell a joke along the way. — Sheri Linden, originally published May 27, 2003.