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A Shadow on the Water

More than film producers of other kinds, cartoon studios can benefit from their audiences' accumulated good will. The Disney studio of the nineties is an obvious example; the enormous success of The Lion King in 1994 surely originated less in the merits of that film than in the good will built up by the preceding features (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast).

Finding Nemo DVD CoverWalt Disney himself benefited from accumulated good will in earlier decades, even though audiences then were more selective. They might turn their backs on Fantasia, despite their love for the thirties shorts and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but they were ready to respond, even after the passage of years, when Disney made Cinderella. (Steven Spielberg's successes and failures, in his pre-Schindler's List days, fell into a similar pattern; a flop like 1941 did not disperse the crowd that was waiting for Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

Good will can evaporate, of course, as the Disney studio proved by asking its audiences to embrace a string of weak features that began, the year after The Lion King's release, with the self-righteous Pocahontas, and culminated last year in the disastrous Treasure Planet. With Finding Nemo, its 2003 release, the Pixar studio—the beneficiary of the enormous good will created by its first four features, all of them successful in every way—may have started down the same path.

To say so may sound odd, given Nemo's cleverness, charm, good humor, and visual richness, not to mention its enormous boxoffice take. But what was problematic in earlier Pixar releases is more problematic in Nemo, and there are new problems as well. John Lasseter, Pixar's creative head, and his colleagues are cultivating the weeds in their garden, rather than pulling them up. Here's what bothers me:

Lead characters who are really supporting characters. Marlin, the clown fish voiced by Albert Brooks (an actor whom I never enjoy as much as I think I should), is a one-note character, a fretful parent. Ellen DeGeneres gives Dory, Marlin's addled companion, shadings that weren't in the script, and so her character is not so limited. But neither Marlin nor Dory—who are on the screen a great deal of the time, and who talk almost constantly—is remotely plausible as the film's protagonist. Nemo himself is too babyish for a hero's role. Worse, because all of these characters are fish, their bodies lack the capacity for expression that is present in anthropomorphic birds and mammals. (Consider the pelican who slams into windows; consider even the expertly caricatured gulls. Were they on the screen more, they would push the fish off it.) With bodily expression difficult, but with the fish bearing so much of the story load, the animators had to rely too heavily on what they could do with the fish's faces. The result—visible in Marlin, but especially in the insistently humanized cuteness of his son, Nemo—is kitsch. Dory escapes that fate because her design is more fish-like, but her design also underlines her marginal status.

Pointless photo-realism. Because the characters are fish and inherently less expressive than animals of other kinds, computer animation's underlying mechanical quality is less noticeable in Finding Nemo than it has been in the earlier Pixar features. What is more noticeable, though, is a new appetite for photo-realism. For an instant, an overhead shot of a fishing boat had me believing that it was the real thing; and many underwater scenes look just as real. By aping live action so closely in parts of Finding Nemo, the Pixar people have crossed into the barren territory previously explored in Dinosaur and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. But Pixar's human characters are as unconvincing—still—as the ocean is convincing. There has been a further retreat in Finding Nemo from character animation's challenges, with photo-realism a comforting refuge. It's ironic that, in the new two-DVD set of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the Disney studio has offered a glimpse of Josh Meador's unused animation of fish; that animation is more graceful and elegant, if less realistic, than anything in Finding Nemo.

Ominous story problems. The stories for the Pixar films have always had holes, sometimes gaping. (How come Buzz Lightyear doesn't realize he's a toy when Andy plays with him?) And they've had structural problems, too. (A Bug's Life ends too many times.) But many good movies have suffered from such shortcomings and triumphed over them. (I don't know why the bad guys don't cut the Dean Martin character's throat when they catch him in Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo, but I'm glad they don't.) In Finding Nemo, though, arbitrariness and a lumpy structure, which can be unimportant or even endearing in a film with compensating virtues, have started to rankle. Dory can read English lettering? Certainly that's not something that should be explained—any explanation would only make the implausible insufferable—but was there no other way to put the two fish on Nemo's trail? Which leads me to another problem, one summed up in the film's very title: which is, of course, Finding Nemo, rather than Saving Nemo. What Marlin and Dory will do when they find Nemo is always open to question, and that question isn't answered when they finally do find him, because he more or less rescues himself (surviving, most impossibly, a long fresh-water trip to the ocean). Marlin and Dory's journey has a loose, picaresque structure, punctuated by their encounters with sharks, turtles, jellyfish, a whale, and the terrifying angler fish. Everything occurs on a single emotional plane (thus aggravating the monotony inherent in Marlin's personality) when what's really wanted is the two fish's growing awareness both of Nemo's situation and of how they might deal with it. A story of that kind would have been difficult to write; we're talking about fish, after all. But I wish that Andrew Stanton, Nemo's director, and his coworkers had made more of an effort.

A perilous sentimentality. The sentimentality that flavors Monsters, Inc., through its emphasis on the love that develops between Sulley and Boo, is from all appearances an honest sentimentality. It's not the cynical sentimentality of Hollywood, where so many movies exalting home and family have been made by people who really care only about snagging the best table at Morton's or Spago. But the sentiment in Finding Nemo is not just sticky, it's borderline morbid. After all, Marlin is fretful and anxious for his son's safety because his wife and 399 of Nemo's siblings have been murdered. As silly as that figure may sound—and the film plays with it a little, when Marlin and his wife, Coral, are talking about names for their just-about-to-hatch children—Marlin is too hovering and fearful a parent to permit dismissing those 400 deaths as a little joke. I'm reminded of how Steven Spielberg stumbled in Minority Report. His usual inventive playfulness—manifested in a high-speed, up-and-down chase in an alley, and in a search for the Tom Cruise character by mechanical "spiders"—seemed callow, and callous, in a film whose engine was the abduction, rape, and murder of the hero's young son. Nemo is never quite so grim, but there's always a cloud over the fun.

The animal children who appear throughout the film, the fish and turtles and Nemo himself, are uniformly adorable. Far from adorable is Darla, the little human horror who appears to the accompaniment of throbbing strings from Psycho. Children are sublime creatures, it seems, except for a repellent mutant few. There runs through Finding Nemo a yuppieish reverence for children, especially those who, like Nemo, have handicaps, or "special fins," at least of an approved kind (Darla's crooked teeth qualify only for a cruel joke). Marlin embodies the anxiety seen so often in those parents who believe that whatever they do for their children, it will never be enough. When an anguished Marlin apologizes to Nemo near the end of the film—the wording is, I believe, "Nemo, I'm so sorry"—the only reasonable response is, for what? But the film itself is in sympathy not just with a parent's wholly understandable distress at a child's suffering, but also with Marlin's much more questionable sense of inadequacy and failure.

I'm not a parent, and my experiences as a child are probably too remote to be of much use here. I grew up in a time when my friends and I roamed for miles in all directions, into woods and through strange neighborhoods, with no adult supervision whatsoever. At the age of six, I rode my bicycle a mile to school, across two busy roads. It was a different world. But I can't help but feel that there are assumptions undergirding Finding Nemo that are not altogether healthy.

I'm not comfortable expressing so many doubts about a sweet-tempered film that offers such delights as surfer sea turtles and sharks who have taken the pledge. When I saw Finding Nemo, it was preceded by trailers for Disney's Brother Bear and DreamWorks' Sinbad, two films that almost certainly will confirm Pixar's supremacy as the studio making today's best animated features. Pixar deserves its success; but I hope that the people making its films will not forget that their own Treasure Planet may be lurking just a few years down the road.

[Posted June 2003]