By Stephanie Zacharek
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If grownups were meant to watch Walt Disney cartoons, God would have kept us all in the third grade for two or three decades. Still, somebody has to drive the SUV every time the Disney-folk decide to lure the little ones down to the multiplex, and as long as the actual movie experience is more pleasant than, say, having the Marquis de Sade set your broken leg, you're way ahead of the game.
Disney's latest kiddie epic, Finding Nemo, originated at Pixar Animation Studios, the much-heralded masters of computer animation; like its predecessors -- the Toy Story movies, A Bug's Life and Monsters, Inc.-- it's long on technical dazzle and a bit short on storytelling. Little matter: The eight- and nine-year-olds will probably love this comforting, elaborately mounted undersea fable, and there's enough over-the-kids'-heads wit mixed in to keep most parents from suffocating themselves in the popcorn tub.
It took a crew of -- let's have a glance at the credits here -- more than 180 dedicated artisans to turn this fantasy out, and they've done themselves proud. The whole thing is absolutely beautiful to look at, even when it has a bad case of the cutes.
Basically, the tale (written by Disney/Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson and David Reynolds) concerns a wayward little orange-and-white clown fish named Nemo (voiced by nine-year-old Alexander Gould), who is netted by scuba divers and shipped to Sydney, Australia, where he ends up in an aquarium in a dentist's office. That sends Nemo's dad, a timid and fretful single parent named Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), on the adventure of his life to find his lost son and take him back to the reef where they live.
En route, the questing Marlin encounters all sorts of trouble and makes all kinds of new friends. Three toothsome sharks with obvious dinner plans turn out to be deep into a self-help program designed to improve their public image. A plucky blue tang named Dory, who talks just like Ellen DeGeneres (because she is Ellen DeGeneres), shows Marlin a few things about perseverance -- despite her own problem with short-term memory loss. In the film's loveliest sequence, a school of silver fish morphs into a series of oceanic road signs, and a laid-back, hip-talking sea turtle named Crush (writer/director Stanton's vocal alter ego) guides the distraught clown fish father to the undersea current that will carry him to Australia.
Meanwhile, in Sydney, little Nemo (in Latin, his name means "Nobody," but your kids don't need to hear that) is readjusting to life in a tank already occupied by an excitable blowfish, an obsessive cleaner shrimp with a French accent (Joe Ranft) and an old Moorish idol called Gill (Willem Dafoe) who thinks he's figured out a way back to the deep blue sea.
By the time Marlin and Dory reach Sydney Harbor (there's the famous opera house), they've enlisted the help of an affable whale and some garrulous pelicans, and the huge team of animation wizards led by Stanton and production designer Ralph Eggleston have created a delightful undersea world that's worthy of Disney's good name and happily teeming with the latest in special effects and cartoon magic.
Message-wise, what the kids get here is a universal story of growing up and gaining courage, of overcoming scary obstacles and, in the end, taking solace in the love of a reliable parent. There's a lesson for adults, too. As the child begins to define himself, the over-protective, vaguely neurotic father must give him the freedom to do it. In the last reel, they swim off together, wiser fish both, into the shimmering pastels of the ocean floor. Not only has danger been confronted and defeated, but the moviemakers have also managed, in a fantasy conceived for four- to ten-year-olds, to rhyme "miracle" and "empirical" on the soundtrack -- just in case there are any budding philosophers in the house. Donald Duck and Goofy, for instance.
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