Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Thirty-Four

#34 — Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton with Lee Unkrich, 2003)
Recently The New York Times Magazine profiled director Spike Jonze with special attention paid to his troubled route he involuntarily took in bringing Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are to the screen. In the piece, Dave Eggers, who worked on the script with Jonze, notes that studio executives weren’t happy with the version of the story they’d crafted because it didn’t adhere to well-worn patterns for films directed at kids. Eggers explains it was lacking “any real easy plot arc: ‘Let’s go find the chalice! Where is it? Here are some people we meet along the way.'”

I don’t get the impression that this comment was necessarily disparaging–even though Eggers drifts widely from traditional narratives in his own work, he also seems to have an appreciation for the sturdiness of established structures–as much as it was a straightforward acknowledgment of the challenge of this particular work. Then again, maybe I just think that because as I read the quote I knew my number thirty-four was pending. Finding Nemo is right on the track Eggers identifies. There is a quest as a nervous clownfish named Marlin crosses a dangerous ocean trying to rescue and retrieve his lost son. Along the way, he encounters an array of colorful creatures: sharks in a support group intended to help them struggle free from their pescetarian ways, some sea turtles fluent in surfer-speak, and one notable blue fish with a bit of a memory problem. His son, Nemo, meets his own band of underwater brothers, the residents of a Sydney dentist’s fish tank where he winds up.

The predictability of the patterns are upended by the vividness of the depictions. This descriptions suits the richness of the computer animation, which was another huge step forward at the time and still looks rich and subtle and lovely in a way that eludes most of the other practitioners of this sort of colorful storytelling. It also applies to the characters. They aren’t just filler, empty business onscreen lugging tired jokes to the audience and generally serving to distract restless kids in the audience. They are fully realized, the humor based in the well thought-out personalities, which are often conveyed in quick, tight sequences. The Pixar team is justly celebrated for the way they merge technical achievement with filmmaking savvy, but an underrated aspect of their broad collaboration is their collective adeptness at screenwriting. The dialogue is always revelatory, individual lines standing as marvelous examples of vital cinematic storytelling, often simultaneously delivering a bit of crucial exposition, earning a laugh and unveiling a keen character detail. There is no wasted imagery onscreen and no wasted ideas in the story, as if the expensive, painstaking method of constructing their films have caused the Pixar crew to make certain all of the material has value. They introduce new characters and new ideas not because they could be pathways to different toys, more merchandise. They do it because new characters and new ideas are exciting. That dedication to the thrill of great moviemaking ensures that every frame matters.

There are calculations, to be sure, but they are based in art and not in commerce. Why else cast Albert Brooks as the reticent, worrisome, finned patriarch? His name probably didn’t cause a spike in ticket sales, but the effectiveness of the choice and the perfection of his vocal performance surely did. Brooks hadn’t had a better showcase for his unique brand of intelligent anxiety since he played Aaron Altman in James L. Brooks’s Broadcast News. Similarly the eminently likable, bound-for-Idol Ellen DeGeneres might seem like a safe choice now, but this was released during the uncertain time between the end of her sitcom and the revitalization that came with her talk show. She plays the sweetly baffled Dory with a commitment to the role instead of the sort of winking acknowledgment of her own stardom that is often the driving force behind modern animated voicework. She’s there to act, not be a celebrity in digitally-rendered clothing.

Andrew Stanton (working with Lee Unkrich, who was also the credited co-director of previous Pixar offerings Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc.) pulls it all together beautifully. There are so many elements here and essentially two major storylines: Marlin’s quest to find Nemo, and Nemo’s own quest to escape his sheltered upbringing and find his confidence and self-sufficiency. Stanton balances it all expertly, offering his different story elements the proper amount of time to let them develop and never straying from one for too long. It may not be revolutionary, but it’s fully satisfying. It also proves that there’s room for inventiveness within the familiar. Sometimes filmmakers achieve greatness by creating something truly, wildly different, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only route. Seemingly routine on the surface, vibrantly unique in degree of storytelling acumen beneath it, Finding Nemo represents one of those other routes. There’s greatness here, too.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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