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Under The Sea

Animation studio goes deep

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As far as trivial time fillers go, ranking the Pixar/Disney animated efforts seems as futile an exercise as ranking favorite Beatles tunes. Because the high level of consistency between them is so comparable, we're basically talking about slight degrees of separation rather than quantum leaps in quality. So just as one person's "I Should Have Known Better" may be another's "Hey, Jude," one individual's Toy Story will doubtless be another's Monsters, Inc., and so on.

In that regard, expect Finding Nemo, the fifth full-length offering from the Pixar studio, to cause many moviegoers to hail it as the outfit's best movie to date while leading just as many -- myself included -- to deem it a delightful summer flick that nevertheless falls short of being an instant classic. Still need a ranking? Fine. It's better than A Bug's Life yet doesn't reach the exalted heights of Monsters, Inc. and the Toy Story twofer. (Of course, accept this nugget of opinion knowing that it comes from someone whose favorite Beatles song isn't such list toppers as "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" or "Yellow Submarine" but rather the haunting, downbeat "Eleanor Rigby.")

For approximately 15 years now, we've been witnessing a remarkable renaissance in the animation field, blessed with a number of toon flicks that have constantly tried to up the ante in regard to more complex storylines, richer character development and, of course, revolutionary graphics: Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beauty and the Beast, Toy Story, Chicken Run and Spirited Away all managed to introduce viewers to something they hadn't quite experienced before. Finding Nemo comes close to such touchstone status only in one respect: Its animation is truly stunning, awash (pun intended) in a dazzling array of colors and creating the impression of a living, breathing sea.

As for the storyline, it's a familiar one to anybody who's ever sat through earlier Disney films (both animated and live-action), employing elements previously seen in everything from Bambi (loss of a parent) to Pinocchio (accepting responsibility) to The Incredible Journey (braving impossible odds to be reunited with a loved one). These are sturdy templates for any motion picture that's largely aimed at young kids open to learning valuable life lessons, yet the twist here is that writer-director Andrew Stanton and co-writers Bob Peterson and David Reynolds set their sights on the adults as well, by fashioning a simple (yet never simple-minded) story about the necessity of parents to eventually unfasten the strings that bind them to their offspring, in effect allowing the tykes to sink or swim on their own merits.

In Finding Nemo, the father figure is Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), a timid clown fish and single parent who's raising his young son Nemo (Alexander Gould) to the best of his abilities. Overly protective after losing the rest of his family (his wife and her hundreds of eggs were gobbled up by a predator), Marlin never allows his boy to take any chances. This in turn annoys Nemo to the point where he defies his dad and swims close to the ocean surface -- whereupon he's captured by a deep-sea diver and eventually deposited in an aquarium that rests in a dentist's office in Sydney, Australia.

Determined not to lose his son, Marlin begins a long, arduous rescue mission across the sea, eventually teaming up with a blue tang named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), an overly exuberant fish who suffers from short-term memory loss. For his part, spunky Nemo is attempting to fashion his own great escape, alongside a scarred Moorish idol named Gill (Willem Dafoe) and the other inhabitants of the office aquarium.

For all its visual splendor, airtight writing and adult-oriented gags (nods to Psycho, Jaws and The Shining are included), Finding Nemo falls short of most Pixar films primarily because its characters are subject to more critical examination than usual. Unlike, say, Toy Story, where each beautifully delineated character seemed to have his or her own history, too many of the players here seem more like "types" than unique individuals. The aquarium dwellers, which include among their number a sensible starfish (Allison Janney) and a blowhard blowfish (Brad Garrett), work well together but never shine on their own -- certainly, their non sequiturs aren't nearly as uproarious as those tossed off by Hamm, Mr. Potato Head, et al.

What's more, two specific characters -- Dory, the blue fish voiced by DeGeneres, and Crush, a mellow surfer-dude turtle voiced by director Stanton -- are as likely to alienate viewers as envelop them. Actually, Crush emerged as my personal fave (followed by the dead-eyed seagulls who chant "Mine! Mine! Mine!" whenever they spot potential food), but it's easy to believe that his Bill-and-Ted-speak could conceivably turn off moviegoers weary of the words "whoa" and "dude." Dory, on the other hand, is sure to emerge as an audience favorite for many, but a little of her scatter-brained routine went a long way as far as I was concerned, and her sizable role wore me down long before the end.

Still, it's downright curmudgeonly to remain focused on the negatives when the rest of the picture is saturated with invention and wit. And as an added treat, showings of the film are preceded by Knick Knack, a short piece that marked Pixar's first foray into animation back in 1989. It's a lovely little item, and it suggests that things have always gone swimmingly for a company that continues to set the high watermark in animated entertainment.

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