Finding Nemo represents one of Pixar’s undisputed high points, and any chance to watch it again on the big screen is one you shouldn’t miss. On the other hand, Disney’s elaborate 3-D conversion brings absolutely nothing new to the experience. The marvelous characters and beautiful underwater setting needed no embellishment, and Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich’s Oscar-winning direction already established the brilliant depth of field that 3-D adherents constantly cite. Pay for it in the theaters? Absolutely! Pay an extra five bucks per ticket? Um…. when’s that Blu-ray coming out again?
The movie itself needs no further praise: a master class on character, pacing and screenwriting. Water and rolling waves constituted one of the final frontiers for computer animation back in 2003, but conquering it meant nothing if Pixar couldn’t tell a compelling story to match. They found a doozy: a father-son tale about the titular clownfish (voiced by Alexander Gould) yanked from the Great Barrier Reef and plopped into a tank in Sydney. His father Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) launches an epic journey to bring him home, aided by an absent-minded blue tang named Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) and a whole ocean full of well-meaning fish.
Stanton and Unkrich lay out two parallel narratives: Marlin running the gamut of set-piece dangers and Nemo plotting escape from the tank with his fellow “prisoners.” The lively cast so thoroughly charms us that we care not a whit for the potentially repetitive structure. Every scene brings us a delightful new figure, whether it be Nemo’s crusty mentor Gill (voiced by Willem Dafoe) or three vegetarian sharks who use Marlin as fodder for their self-help group. The script affords all of them a plethora of choice comic zingers that convey their personalities with deceptive speed.
To it, Stanton and Unkrich add a compellingly funny relationship between the high-strung Marlin and well-meaning Dory. DeGeneres struggled on film before finding her niche on the talk-show circuit, but her brilliant work here renders all those live-action misfires moot. She’s winning and sympathetic while still acting as an inadvertent obstacle for Brooks’s worry-wart poppa (himself the epitome of the actor’s Nervous Nellie shtick). As comedy teams go, they stand with the greats… all the more impressive because they’re still just a couple of fish.
That actually acts as another secret weapon in Finding Nemo’s arsenal. It uses simple designs for its characters, who often have nothing more than a couple of bubble eyes and a slit of a mouth to express themselves. Stanton and Unkrich apply the animation principles of squash and stretch to marvelous effect, exaggerating their characters’ features to convey a broad range of emotions. That endears them to us on a core level. We can’t help but love them even when they stray into the realm of cliché (as Stanton’s own surfer dude turtle does).
The surrounding seascape is equally compelling, a colorful wonderland of tones and textures that pop off the screen with every frame. Finding Nemo displays as much range with its ocean settings as it does with the sea creatures who inhabit it. The steely gray fishing grounds off the coast of Sydney, for example, stand in contrast not just to the bright reef where Nemo lives, but also to the equally gloomy submarine graveyard where Marlin and Dory run into their shark “friends.” The constant novelty on display never grows old or gimmicky, since Stanton and Unkrich use it all in the service of story rather than an afterthought.
It’s bright, it’s beautiful and it hasn’t aged a day. So why, then, do we need to see it in 3-D? No reason at all. The effects work just fine, but they don’t alter the film a tad, acting only to give Disney an excuse for another cash grab. That taints an otherwise masterful production and reminds us that even with films this wonderful, profit still trumps everything. I’d say steer clear of its theatrical run for those reasons… but even then, you’d still be missing a treat. Monsters Inc. may not stand up to that test this December, but for now, we’ll give one of Pixar’s undisputed classics a pass. It’s more than earned it.