Finding Nemo (U)

An epic drama of loss and fish
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Nemo is the Latin word for "no one", which makes the title Finding Nemo sound like a bleak existential drama - a sequel to Waiting for Godot, perhaps. In fact, it's the latest from the genius boffins at Pixar, who devised A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc. and the peerless Toy Story movies, so Beckettian themes of futility and doubt aren't traditionally what you'd expect. Then again, this new film does begin with a tragic bereavement, goes on to explore the anguish of a father for his vanished offspring and fetches up inside a kind of prison, so maybe existential bleakness isn't so wide of the mark after all.

It's just that this particular drama of separation and wandering concerns fish. Fish? Well, why not? They are no less promising than insects, "monsters" or plastic toys and they have the advantage of an infinitely exotic locale to call home. Seldom have the deep physics of the ocean been made to look so alluringly beautiful and yet so sinister, a rainbow-hued place that holds in equilibrium the possibilities of pleasure and peril. As with all Pixar movies, you have to keep reminding yourself that it is principally intended as family entertainment, not merely because of its mile-high visual and verbal sophistication but because there are scenes here that I wouldn't blame any five-year-olds for ducking behind their seats in terror. I almost did the same myself once or twice.

Take the appalling moment when Marlin (voiced Albert Brooks), a candy- orange clown fish, is helpless to defend his family from a rapacious barracuda - the speed and suddenness of the attack leaves you reeling. In consequence Marlin becomes neurotically protective of his one surviving child Nemo (Alexander Gould), fussing over him at every opportunity. "Hold my fin!" he says as they cross a fishy thoroughfare on the school run. His concern is understandable, given that Nemo is also disabled by a gammy fin, rather like Woody in Toy Story 2 with his torn arm. And, of course, what Marlin fears most comes to pass when Nemo, straying out of bounds, is netted by a diver and whisked off to Sydney, where he is immured in a tropical fish tank in a dentist's office.

Thus begins the two-tiered plot, one involving Nemo's incarceration alongside some august company - Allison Janney takes time out of The West Wing to play a pink starfish, and Willem Dafoe, with that gravelly drawl, voices a scarred moorish idol with a passion for escape (not unlike the role he played in the recent prison movie Animal Factory, only then he wasn't, er, a fish). But it's the other strand, Marlin's odyssey beneath the ocean in search of his son, which showcases the Pixar animation team at their imaginative and witty best. I'm not sure why anyone thinks Ellen DeGeneres is funny, but her casting here as Marlin's companion Dory - a regal blue tang with short-term memory loss - is wonderfully inspired; with her upbeat comic riffing she's an excellent foil to Brooks's kvetching pessimist, and what's more, she can read English.

I suppose one could complain about the surrender to anthropomorphism, but when it's incorporated so cleverly within the film-makers' character development and droll view of contemporary culture, why bother to object?

Finding Nemo is worth the price of admission for the trio of sharks alone. Led by a Great White named Bruce (voiced with a chummy Australian leer by Barry Humphries) they have taken a pledge not to eat fish and convene sessions like recovering addicts - "Fish are friends, not food" is their mantra, though one thin wisp of blood in the water and Bruce falls off the wagon, snapping his jaws and hunting down Marlin and Dory like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. The writers, Bob Peterson, David Reynolds and director Andrew Stanton, also cheekily reference Psycho, The Birds and Terminator. At least, they're the ones I spotted. Some of the jokes flit past so swiftly you're barely able to catch them, such as the blink-and-you-miss-it glimpse of two swordfish fencing with each other while they gossip, or the crab that raises its claws in a menacing kung-fu pose. The film goes beyond taking the piscine when Marlin hitches a ride to the Great Barrier Reef on the back of a thrill-seeking surfer turtle named Crush. I can only presume Keanu Reeves was unavailable for voice duty. As the turtles surf towards a "swirly vortex of terror" Crush notices his passenger looking queasy: "No hurling on the shell, dude - I've just waxed it!" The camaraderie of the animal kingdom is selective, though, as Marlin and Dory discover: a pelican's beak turns out a place of greater safety than hanging around a harbour with a flock of seagulls, all screeching "Mine! Mine! Mine!"

Almost every American movie about estrangement between father and child ends with the words "I love you, Dad", and it would be foolish to expect different just because the lead characters are tropical fish. Single-parent issues don't go away even at the bottom of the ocean. But if the sentiment feels trite, the technical accomplishment of Finding Nemo is anything but. The colour, line and movement on display are breath-taking in their range and subtlety - true, I could have done without the Thomas Newman score and its isn't-the-world-awesome pomposity, but after a while it didn't impinge. That these visuals are matched to an incomparably funny and acute script puts Pixar in a class of its own. Which other studio operates such stringent quality control over its product? Argument over the best of the five films would probably place the two Toy Story movies at the front, but one would happily revisit any of them. Parents with young children will already have revisited them many times, I gather. Finding Nemo won't become a chore.