When you talk about a Pixar film in 2012, you have to address “the Pixar,” that tidy industry of creative wunderkinds who work in an office where (one imagines) you dance instead of sitting, high-five instead of saying “Good morning,” and the barcode tattoo on your forearm is just freaking adorable and brilliant. When they fail to make a masterpiece (consensus on Cars 2 and Brave has been poor and fair, respectively), it’s less likely to inspire derision than a kind of self-comforting hope for recovery, like when your kid whiffs the spelling bee or skins his elbow. Around the time Finding Nemo came out, in the shadow of the foreordained Oscar sweep by the final Lord of the Rings movie, the company was still gold, not yet platinum. Once again it’s difficult to talk about the film except in terms of “the product,” like different stages in the evolution of the iPhone or Gmail. It’s hard to deny that there’s real pleasure in being constantly reminded, on a moment-to-moment basis, that a movie like Finding Nemo is better, sharper, and (within safe limits) weirder than what we’d otherwise get from the Mouse House or some off-brand studio like DreamWorks Animation or Blue Sky. There’s also a tinge of pride that they can hit all the right pleasure centers for almost every tier of moviegoer, from those that just want a nice story to those that need to think on their feet or else perish from boredom.
Finding Nemo drops the audience into the Spielbergian vise-grip of pleasure-torture right from the word go, with an opening that makes short work of what would otherwise be an entire reel of exposition in a non-Pixar feature. Almost before you can say “Ichthyophthirius multifiliis,” the script makes sure everyone from the orchestra to the nosebleed seats is aware of who the main characters are, and what’s at stake for them: Clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks), a widow after their home is attacked by a barracuda, is left to care for his only surviving son, Nemo (Alexander Gould). When school begins (it’s here that the world-building hinted at during the pre-massacre opening shifts into high gear), Nemo’s burgeoning rebellious streak sets a chain of events off that causes him to be separated from his father. The machinery has been built, and now it’s in motion: What began as a far more colorful variation on the protective-father tale Cormac McCarthy would tell with The Road becomes a far simpler gotta-find-my-son saga, with all of the attendant road-movie conventions—chiefly, the journey as a metaphor for self-discovery, the zany types one meets on the way, and the alien locations that, literally and figuratively, draw the protagonist away from his comfort zone.
If I’m making the film sound a little unilateral, a little bit monotonous in its ingenuity, it’s not because I didn’t enjoy it. It’s a success. It’s part of the reason Pixar is batting within a respectable range of a thousand, in terms of high-quality and smart family-friendly entertainment. By its very pedigree as a Pixar production, it pellets the viewer with perfectly round pearls of one-liners and visual gags, delivered at double speed. One of its best features is the voice cast, headed up by Brooks (a truly inspired piece of casting) and Ellen Degeneres (ditto). It makes interesting use of underwater darkness and light, different aspects of aquatic physics, and provides a spirited answer to the question of how a tiny little clownfish will cross hundreds of miles to get from the Great Barrier Reef to downtown Sydney. As L.B. Jeffreys once said to Lisa Carol Fremont, with no small amount of wilted exasperation, it’s perfect.
The 2012 fall season will bear witness to a 3D retrofit of Pixar’s Oscar-winner (the studio’s first naked gold man in the Animated Feature category), a process that doesn’t add much value or spatial wonder that wasn’t already there. Instead, at its best, the added dimension is merely harmless, making the movie blurry enough that you need special glasses to make it sharp again. As tradition dictates, the movie is preceded by an original Pixar short. Partysaurus Rex, the third one-reel extraction from the Toy Story universe, is an exhilarating exercise in finding a little universe (a community of bath toys) in a side room of a seemingly depleted, larger universe (the canon trilogy). The intention here seems to be to create something minor yet diverting, but as an exercise in the studio’s unparalleled groupthink, it’s also thrilling.