About a year ago, Disney produced 3D conversions of both Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King for Blu-ray. The latter was re-released in theaters for two weeks as part of the home video promotion. Unexpectedly, it did gangbusters at the box-office, even taking the number one spot for two consecutive weekends ahead of new releases. Not bad for a seventeen year old film. Sensing there was more money to be made, Disney came up with a new game plan. Even though the 3D version of Beauty was on store shelves, they would re-release it in theaters as well that January. Makes sense, since the average household doesn’t have a blu-ray player in their home theater, let alone 3D capability. Future re-releases would include, The Little Mermaid and Monsters, Inc., as a tie-in to its sequel set to arrive a few months later.
Somewhere in the middle of that re-release schedule is Andrew Stanton’s phenomenally successful Finding Nemo. Like Monsters, Inc., it was a Pixar Studios film and the production house already had experience converting past 2D features into 3D when they re-released the first two Toy Story films in the format. Disney did a hell of a job converting traditional hand-drawn animation films like Lion King and Beauty to 3D, but being that Pixar works in the virtual realm, they have the advantage of going back to their original digital files to re-render their animation which in some ways, existed as 3D to begin with. They’re also smart enough not to let the 3D process get the better of them. They don’t push it to the point of distracting the viewer from the characters or the story.
The aquatic family tale that is Finding Nemo is one of those films that I immensely enjoyed when I first saw it back in 2003. The Pixar team took their incredible animation tools and with the vocal assistance of a talented cast, crafted a wonderful story that would touch millions. The recent announcement that it too would finally get a sequel is no surprise. Stanton, who would later direct WALL * E and the live action box-office tragedy John Carter, created an adventurous journey into the heart of a relationship between father and son, deep in the heart of the ocean. Despite the fact that a DVD copy of Nemo sits proudly amongst other titles in my home theater library, I kinda had forgotten about the film. When WALL * E hit four years later, I felt Stanton had matured as did I. It was a more adult oriented movie, a work of art that in some ways worked as a silent film. When news came of Nemo’s re-release, I wasn’t too eager to revisit it either. Sure, I was curious about the 3D conversion, but being partial to WALL * E, would I enjoy Stanton’s directorial debut as much as I did nearly a decade earlier?
Marlin (Albert Brooks) is an orange and white Clownfish who becomes a neurotic mess after losing his wife Coral (Elizabeth Perkins) and their 400 eggs to a killer barracuda. The pride and joy of his life is his surviving son Nemo (Alexander Gould) who Marlin is extremely over-protective of. Marlin is so protective that Nemo becomes frustrated and decides to defy his father and journey beyond the safety of the coral reef to impress his school friends. This results in Nemo’s encounter with some human divers who scoop him into a net and take him away to civilization.
Desperate to save his son, Marlin hopelessly races after them and literally runs into Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a blue tang who suffers from short term memory loss and kicks off their adventure. Along the way they encounter a support group for sharks, evade an angler fish in the darkness of the deep, navigate through a forest of jellyfish and surf the EAC (East Australian Current) on the back of a hip sea turtle. Meanwhile, off the coast of Australia, Nemo makes some friends of his own in the fish tank of a dentist’s office and under the leadership of a Moorish Idol named Gill (Willem Dafoe) they plan to escape. The clock is ticking against them, because in a few days Nemo will be given to the dentist’s spoiled niece Darla, who has a habit of shaking her pet fish until they go belly up. Word of Marlin’s quest spreads throughout the sea back to Nemo, but little does he know his dad and Dory have encountered the small problem of being stuck in the mouth of a whale.
When Nemo was released, like many others, I had already been a fan of the creative team at Pixar Animation Studios before I even knew who they were. Many of their shorts from “Tin Toy” to “Luxo Jr.” ran before feature films back in the early nineties and impressed me with their style and ability to tell amusing stories with no dialogue. My favorite was “Knick-Knack”, the story of a toy snowman living in a snow globe who desires to escape and meet up with a toy mermaid in a fish tank. That short, which ran before Nemo during its original theatrical release has been replaced by the new Toy Story Toons: Partysaurus Rex, where the beloved dinosaur (voiced by Wallace Shawn) finds himself meeting new friends when the adorable Bonnie takes him on an adventure in her bathtub. Once again, Pixar works their magic in less than ten minutes and though there’s less of a focus on Woody and Buzz, they shake things up with a flood of fresh ideas that don’t just involve an overflowing bathtub.
Nearly ten years since Nemo’s release, I’m reminded that this film is a story of relationships. First there’s the peculiar partnership that develops between Marlin and Dory, a character that takes some time to warm up to. Yet halfway through the film, much like Dory, I found myself repeating that crucial bit of information, “P. Sherman, 13 Wallabee Way, Sydney. Then there’s the confidence Nemo finds within himself through encouragement from Gill, who initially sees the boy as a tool for escape, but becomes his mentor. More importantly, at the center of Finding Nemo is the heartfelt story of a strained relationship between a father and son. When they finally do reunite, both are changed by their individual experiences yet have evolved for the better.
Missing from this film is much of the adult humor that was present in the Toy Story features. Quite a risk at the time, yet it works because this picture is more visual than any Pixar feature that preceded it and much of that imagery is powerful enough to burn itself into your mind. Stanton’s ability to tell a story visually is what really makes the film work. The attack on Marlin’s wife by a barracuda, the eeriness of the minefield and sunken submarine where the sharks live, the complexity of the coral reef and the dark, deep world of the lethal angler fish are images that affected me on a subliminal level and are a true testament to Stanton’s talent. Even the inside of the whale that Marlin and Dory find themselves within reminded me of “Monstro” from the Disney classic Pinocchio.
When I originally saw this film, I though its greatest flaw was that it lacked a central villain. I’ve come to realize that an antagonist was not necessary for this particular story. If there is a villain, its the fear the central characters find within themselves; Marlin’s fear of losing his son after losing his wife, alienates the boy to the point where he eventually does lose him. Nemo fears not the fact that he may never make it home, but the strength and courage deep within himself.
What also gives Finding Nemo’s story resonance are the production’s wondrous vocal talents, particularly Brooks, playing is his usual neurotic self and the incredibly supportive DeGeneres making the blue skinned Dory perhaps the greatest work she’s ever done. She did the impossible by making short-term memory loss look like liberating fun and her rapport with Brooks is probably one of the most unique relationships in cinema.
Although it’s only been about ten years, there is in fact a new audience of youngsters who have yet to experience Finding Nemo. The film will be re-released on home video in just a few months, but the movie theater is really the place to experience it. Even though it’s been converted to a new visual format, the film is exactly the same. Nothing’s changed except maybe for us, the viewers. A few years away from Finding Nemo has made it a richer and more rewarding experience.