Finding Pixar- A Skeptic’s Journey: Finding Nemo (2003)

This is the fifth part of an eleven part series in which I chronologically explore the films of the Pixar Animation studio for the first time in my life while also exploring the studio’s history and what it was that kept me disinterested in it all these years.

In the years after the release of Monster’s Inc, Pixar would reach out to a lot of different demographics in what seems to have been a five year plan to take over the world, one unexpected demographic that they seemed to reach with the film Finding Nemo was rappers.  Seriously, the movie seems to have been name-checked by MCs as diverse as the super-mainstream Drake (“In your city faded off the brown: Nino… Swimming in the money, come and find me: Nemo”), the cult gangsta Pusha T (“It’s like I’m throwing rocks at the pen begging for the RICO… Searching for the fishscale like I’m tryna find Nemo”), and the conscious veteran Common (“My daughter found Nemo, I found the new primo / Yeah you know how we do, we do it for the people”).  What is it about this movie that can unite all these diverse voices (aside from the fact that a lot of things rhyme with the word “Nemo”)?  Probably just that it was insanely popular across a wide swath of America.  The film grossed 867 million dollars worldwide, surpassing The Lion King as the highest grossing animated film both domestically and overseas (the domestic record would be taken away by Dreamworks’ Shrek 2 the next year, and the overseas record would eventually be topped by Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs of all things.  Pixar would eventually reclaim both records with Toy Story 3).  The film would also live up to the studio’s usual critical standards and would also claim them their first Oscar in the still new animated feature category.

Looking at all of that, it seems like most of the country was enraptured by the film, and while I never got close to seeing it, this is where I started to at least be conscious of the fact that there was a difference between Pixar’s animated movies and everyone else’s.  I had known that there was a level of critical acclaim for some of Pixar’s earlier films like Toy Story 2, but I guess I was reading more reviews by 2003 and I was finally grasping just how much critics were riding this studios’ dick.  This was also the first time that I saw with my own eyes just how many people other than children, parents, and critics were going to these things.  I was semi-shocked when I heard some of my high school peers talking about the film enthusiastically and could only assume that they went to see it on some kind of stoned lark.  In my defense, I wasn’t ignoring this stuff just so I could watch crap like The One anymore.  I was becoming a pretty serious film buff at this point; I was seeing edgy fare like City of God in theaters while diving into the back catalogs of the old masters like Ingmar Bergman when I was at home.  At the time this stuff seemed like more of a juvenile waste of time than ever to me.

Of course it isn’t a coincidence that this movie was the one that broke in such a big way; this was a film that was specifically made so that Pixar wouldn’t come in second to a farting ogre again.  Returning to the Hip-hop line of thought from my introduction, I’m going to cite Jay-Z’s 2001 album “The Blueprint” as the rap album I’d most readily compare Finding Nemo to.  That’s not to say that the film has much of anything to do with Hov’s rhymes or Kanye’s beats, but I think both works share a similar wavelength in that they’re works by artists who considered themselves to be leaders of the pack but who still had everything to prove after they were dissed by their peers.  Like “The Blueprint,” this is a work that pushes away any minor goals and aims to be an anthemic crowd-pleasing blockbuster; watching it you can practically picture John Lasseter standing on a table chanting “P-X-R, we runnin’ this ‘toon shit / A. Stanton, we runnin’ this ‘toon shit / Lee Unkrich, we runnin’ this ‘toon shit / Watch out, we run L.A.”  Of course making a Dynasty-building blockbuster isn’t always the best route to an artistic triumph; any true Jigga fan will tell probably tell you that as great as “The Blueprint” is, it’s Hov’s rawer debut album “Reasonable Doubt” is that is his true masterpiece, and similarly Finding Nemo is usually not the film that most Pixar fans hold up as the studio’s greatest triumph (though there certainly are some that will, don’t get me wrong).

The movie certainly opens quite strong with a dramatic prologue in which Nemo and his fiancé plan a future for their eggs before being attacked by a barracuda which kills the mother and all the family’s eggs except for one which Marlin will raise as a single father.  All of it seems a little incongruous in a movie that will later go to great lengths to deny the predator/prey relationship between many ocean creatures by introducing nonsense like  vegetarian sharks and pelicans who form friendships with fish rather than focusing in on trying to eat them.  Still it works at establishing the relationship between Marlin and Nemo, a relationship that’s made all the better by a great voice performance by Albert Brooks, who makes Marlin into a likable and dignified character desperate to do the right thing.  Pixar also probably made the right choice in getting an actual child (Alexander Gould, who would go on to play Shane Botwin on the Showtime series “Weeds”) to voice Nemo, which goes a long way toward making him feel like a child instead of a miniature Marlin.  The believability of this relationship grounds the film really well no matter what silliness surrounds it, and I’m going to bet that it’s this central relationship that made the film so popular with family audiences.

It should probably be noted that it is a little hard for me to judge some of the film’s visuals compared to other Pixar films because this is the only film by the studio that has yet to be released on Blu-Ray (the medium I’ve been using up to this point).  While conventional DVD isn’t unwatchable to me at this point like other home video formats of yore, it definitely affected the look of the film and made the whole thing look a lot less crisp.  There are definitely elements of the movie that look really good like the occasional views of the ocean surface, but the underwater shots of the coral reef and its inhabitants were kind of disappointing to me.  This seems like the perfect playground for animation but it all still seems dated, and kind of disconnected.  Other elements like the human characters don’t look bad, but aren’t much of an improvement over what we’ve seen before from the studio. I’m not sure when these movies are finally going to hit that point where they start to look like modern animation but it isn’t here yet.

If anything I expected Finding Nemo to be a major public refutation of the Dreamworks brand of animation, but the film I ended up seeing seemed a lot more pandering and Dreamworks-like than any of Pixar’s previous films.  The movie is filled with wacky personalities and one-liners.  The ocean is populated by weird adult in-jokes like a family of turtles that speak like So-Cal surfers and sharks which have somehow found a way to survive on a vegetarian diet.  We’re also greeted to silly lines like “They’re going to the drop off… why don’t we [just] fry them up and serve them with chips,” as if a fish is going to know about fish and chips and live to tell the tale.  What’s really offensive about this stuff isn’t just that it’s silly so much as that it is completely unfunny.  While the Toy Story movies and to a greater extent Monster’s Inc. were amusing and did make me chuckle at times, I watched this movie stone-faced, I didn’t find it funny at all.

All of that pales in comparison to just how annoying the character of Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, is in this movie.  This character’s cartoonish memory problem and constant naiveté really grated on me, and I really wanted Marlin to just ditch her and move on with his quest.  What really irritated me about Dory was that every time I was getting into Marlin’s story and wanting him to succeed he would be hindered by Dory’s comic relief, though paradoxically I was just as if not more annoyed whenever she somehow managed to help Marlin’s quest through some kind of wacky accident.  In short, she’s the most annoying Pixar character since Flick from A Bug’s Life, and that wasn’t the only similarity I saw between these two films.  The various sea creatures that lived in the dentist’s fish tank with Nemo reminded me a lot of the circus bugs from that film and both films had similar talking animal motifs at their centers.

To Finding Nemo’s credit, it has a lot fewer plot-holes than some of the other Pixar films that I’ve seen.  I could bring up certain qualms about its ending, which hinges upon an entire ocean being enthralled by what really isn’t all that spectacular a story, and I could point out how stupid it is that Nemo can somehow escape from the dentist office by being flushed down a toilet.  But these aren’t really holes so much as they are just dumb ideas.  That’s probably in part due to the film’s simple episodic structure, but it is an accomplishment just the same given how easily I could tear apart elements of some of the other films I’ve watched for this project.  I would also be remiss if I failed to give a tip of the hat to composer Thomas Newman, who was brought in to replace Randy Newman (no relation) as the film’s composer.  No offence to Randy Newman, who is a fine songwriter, but these movies have been outgrowing him and Thomas Newman adds a lot to the proceedings here.

Looking back at Finding Nemo I think I’m going to have to retract that comparison between Nemo and “The Blueprint.”  The comparison still works in regard to the impact that both works had on the careers of their respective creators, but as artistic accomplishments I don’t think they’re on anywhere near the same level.   Finding Nemo is closer to an album like “Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life,” which saw Jay-Z going a little too far in order to pander to mainstream audiences with embarrassments like the “Annie” sampling title track.  That album seemed like a pretty big deal when it came out, but looking back it really wasn’t one of Hov’s most memorable efforts.  Nemo similarly isn’t going to be seen by me as either one of the studio’s best or worst.  The film does indeed have some good qualities at its core but I can’t help but see it as one step forward and two steps back.

The Short Program: Knick Knack

Finding Nemo marked the last time that Pixar would recycle a pre-Toy Story short as the pre-show entertainment for one of their feature films.  To the best of my knowledge this was simply because they ran out of product in their archive, I don’t think they made any shorts between 1989 and 1997 that saw the light of day.  Knick Knack seems to use largely the same aesthetic and technology as Tin Toy; both are set in a bright room with a hard wood floor and both of them have similar looking character models.  They’re also both about living inanimate objects, though in this case the living things are vacation souvenirs rather than toys.   The film follows a model snowman as he tries to escape the snowglobe he lives in order to be reunited with all the glamorous souvenirs from Hawaii and Miami and other pleasant places.  The short also brings us the very first melding of Pixar and celebrity voice talent, as the background music is provided by the 80s a cappella star Bobby McFerrin.

The short is most notorious because it now exists in two versions: the 1989 version and the version which appeared in front of Finding Nemo (which is, incidentally the only version that Pixar has officially released since).  The key difference between the two: tits.  The Miami souvenir in the original version of the short featured a woman in a bikini with a huge set of knockers, and a mermaid seen at the end was close to being topless, with only a pair of sea stars coving up her nipples.  In the new version the women’s chests are reduced to Olive Oyl levels of flatness and both are given much less revealing swim gear.  This completely changes the tone of the short; in the original the snowman is clearly driven by lust and he’s clearly trying to escape from his cage so he can make passionate love to (or at least feel up the chest of) his fellow knick knack, in the new version he’s trying to escape just, well, just because.

Of course the original short probably wasn’t intended to be seen by anyone beyond a small group of animators and the new version was meant to be attached to one of the biggest family movies of all time, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a bowdlerization on the level of Han shooting first and guns being replaced by walkie talkies.   I feel like George Lucas or Steven Spielberg would have received a lot more flack for doing something like this.  It’s too bad, because this is actually one of the better of their early shorts.  It has some pretty good “Wile E. Coyote”-esque humor and it’s generally a bit more fully realized than a lot of the other ones.  It certainly doesn’t reach the levels of effectiveness that Luxo, Jr. did, but it probably is their best one since that up to this point (chronologically).

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2 responses to “Finding Pixar- A Skeptic’s Journey: Finding Nemo (2003)

  1. I agree with almost everything you said about Finding Nemo. What really confuses me is how many people actually view it as a masterpiece. Where would you rank this with the other Pixar films so far?

  2. Something like:

    1. Toy Story 2 (***1/2)
    2. Monsters, Inc. (***)
    3. Toy Story (**1/2)
    4. Finding Nemo (**1/2)
    5. A Bug’s Life (**)

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