Back in the late 1980s and 1990s, Disney Animation Studios made a huge come-back from flops like “The Black Cauldron” and “The Rescuers Down Under.” It started with “The Little Mermaid” and basically continued through The Lion King. This comeback can be linked directly to the musical talents of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Their brilliant musical numbers for “Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” brought Disney cartoons back into the mainstream. After Ashman’s death, Elton John came in to work on “The Lion King,” but even then the magic had faded.
The Lion King became the highest grossing of this last reign of Disney animation, but things were already dipping over the hill by this time. “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” were far superior with story and concept. Much of the success from The Lion King was due to holdover from the previous films. The next animated film, “Pocahontas,” made money but was a major step backwards. Subsequent disappointments like Atlantis and The Emperor’s New Groove showed that a studio couldn’t live by Disney alone. Like Menken and Ashman, Pixar has become the new critical element for successful Disney films.
But the latest Pixar release, “Finding Nemo,” has the possibility to be their “Pocahontas” – a step backwards. The Pixar films peaked with A Bug’s Life, and the original “Toy Story” is hard to beat. While Monsters, Inc. outperformed all of them at the box office and in video sales, it just didn’t have the overwhelming punch of story and characters from these earlier Pixar movies. “Finding Nemo” has even less.
That’s not to say the “Finding Nemo” isn’t a good family film. It is. (Do be warned, however, that it opens with Marlin’s wife and 400 eggs being devoured off screen by a barracuda – not exactly the most uplifting moment in a Disney film. At least “Bambi” waited until the second act to kill the mother.) But is it worth the close to $100 million budget that now goes into these computer-generated monstrosities? Not quite.
Marlin (Albert Brooks) is a neurotic clown fish who has one son, Nemo (Alexander Gould). On the first day of school, Nemo is captured by SCUBA divers. Marlin, who normally won’t travel farther than a few feet from his protective sea anemone, must now swim throughout the ocean to find his son. With the help of the dimwitted Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), he encounters several wacky characters, including sharks in a twelve step program to stop eating fish, surfing sea turtles and a pelican with a heart of gold.
Albert Brooks, who plays his stock character of a neurotic father, does a decent job as the voice of Marlin. However, by the end of the film (which runs a long 101 minutes), he gets rather annoying. Not as annoying as Woody Allen did in Antz, but annoying nonetheless.
But the real reason to see a Pixar film is the animation, right? In all the other Pixar films, there are numerous moments where the film is photo realistic that you’d swear you’re watching actual film. In particular, the opening shot of A Bug’s Life so captures the complexity and detail of nature with the flowing grass and movement of leaves in the wind. “Finding Nemo” doesn’t have any moment like this, and in many ways is nothing more than the “Under the Sea” number from “The Little Mermaid” gussied up a bit for CGI.
Of course, the animators at Pixar will tell you different. “Look at all the detail in the ocean!” they’ll say. “We’ve got stuff floating, with currents and what-not!” True, if you examine the detail of the computer animation in “Finding Nemo,” it is incredibly detailed. Particles float by in the ocean, going in and out of focus, as if you’re watching something on the Discovery Channel. The problem is that while this is a feat in emulating chaotic movement with a computer, this isn’t all that eye-popping to the average viewer. (Of course, a true special effects fan will say that the best effects are those that people don’t recognize as effects. But this hardly sells the movie as a must-see in the theater.)
After four Pixar features under their belts, it is painfully easy to see the clichés emerging. Like all the others, “Finding Nemo” has an ensemble of wacky characters that Nemo meets in a fish tank in Sydney, Australia. These fish are somewhat funny, but they can’t hold a candle to the bevy of extra toys in “Toy Story” or the circus bugs from A Bug’s Life.
If you’ve got kids, take them to see “Finding Nemo.” It’ll keep them entertained, and they’ll like the story. It’s not really worth a full price admission, and you won’t miss anything if you wait for the DVD release. Cross your fingers, though, and hope Pixar can make a better follow-up.