Of all the feature films in Pixar’s impressive repertoire, Finding Nemo has arguably proven the most durable. The movie, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last month, is held in high favor critically and with audiences, but to some extent it’s also underappreciated, commonly regarded as an admirable, stalwart entry from the animation house. And yet, though it’s not a film that’s inspired the kind of rapturous following that The Incredibles or WALL-E have cultivated, Finding Nemo remains the heart and soul of the Pixar family of movies. It showcases a number of hallmarks for which the studio has become renowned, such as stunning technical bravura and smoothly elegant storytelling. But what distinguishes Finding Nemo from its studio brethren—and what makes it Pixar’s enduring classic to date—is its narrative accessibility and emotional directness.
At the time of its release, Finding Nemo was primarily heralded for its unparalleled pictorial beauty. Digital animation was still somewhat fresh at the time; just two years before, Shrek had introduced brand new possibilities in digital animation with its crisply rendered environments and characters that had scale and weight. Finding Nemo, by turn, was possibly the first full realization of those possibilities. I still remember seeing it in the theater and feeling completely engulfed by the colors, layers, and textures of the underwater world it fashions. Ten years later, the film still exudes an ethereal quality that’s seldom seen in today’s animation (which is a credit, also, to the deep musical and overall soundscape). But the abounding detail of the film’s visual design, from the scales on Nemo’s body to the speckles dancing in the foreground and background of every frame, is all the more astounding for how subtly it’s deployed.
But let’s set aside Finding Nemo’s aesthetic marvels for a moment. Perhaps it’s understandable how so many remembrances of the film have concentrated more on its look and feel rather than the reach of its story, because the story itself is pretty plain: An overprotective father loses his son and must quest across the sea to get him back. Nothing too demanding, but the film gradually peels back this conceit and reveals a latent, almost primal depth about it. To lose a child is every parent’s worst fear. Likewise, to be lost in an unknown world is every child’s worst fear. Director Andrew Stanton, who also conceived the story, could easily have overcomplicated this dynamic, but instead he keeps the film’s emotional palate simple and focused. This strategy allows the film’s humanity to materialize through the scores of characters and environments that Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould) and his father Marlin (Albert Brooks) confront.
Stanton sets the table with a prologue that economically establishes the emotional stakes, as well as the respective worldviews of both Nemo and Marlin. The sequence sees Marlin and his wife settling into a new home. Watching over their eggs, the two jibe casually about their future—their voices replete with hope and insecurity. Their exchange is cut short, though, when a violent encounter with a barracuda leaves Marlin shocked and alone. In a remarkable wide shot, Marlin floats still among the quiet currents of the gray, moonlit ocean. The next shot, a close-up as he begins to weep, is an intimate image of sorrow that eclipses the context of comforting family entertainment and the faux-serious standards of modern animated films. Then, as Marlin notices a single remaining egg, a glimmer of hope is understatedly expressed through a combination of stirring voice work from Brooks and Thomas Newman’s delicate score.
This sequence effectively encapsulates the anguish and hope through which the movie’s ensuing odyssey takes you. While there’s never a doubt in mind how the proceedings will resolve (Nemo’s eventual capture and rescue are, after all, a foregone conclusion), Finding Nemo is more about how the journey unfolds. Once Marlin sets off into unknown waters in search of Nemo, the film essentially becomes a series of episodic encounters, featuring new characters and environments, each more vivid and delightful than the ones that came before. Marlin’s journey takes him through a dangerous jellyfish forest (strikingly first entering the frame as a cloudy purple haze) to the East Australian current, where he meets a free spirit sea turtle named Crush (voiced by Stanton in surfer-dude mode).
The film also gets an additional push with its intercutting of Marlin’s exploits with those of Nemo, who finds himself captive in a dentist’s aquarium in Sydney. There he meets a colorful band of fish (voiced by Willem Dafoe, Allison Janney, Stephen Root, Brad Garrett, among others) that together plans a jailbreak from the tank. But Marlin’s story is the more emotionally rounded of the two, due in part to Brooks’s keen voice work. Marlin is an intensely cynical protagonist. Most of the time, he appears visibly irritated and has a tendency to berate those around him, even when they offer help. Nevertheless, Brooks attributes Marlin with an earnest demeanor, which is no easy task for a character that’s lost faith in the world around him. Somewhere under all the curmudgeonly insults and negative projections is a fish that wants to be better, and Brooks teases this out over the course of the film. Marlin’s character may be a bit too structured, but when he watches Nemo ride off to school into the end credits, the weathered, confident love in Brooks’s voice is undeniable.