Pixar's fourth feature for Disney is yet another miracle of computer animation, an instant classic, but with less of the surface brightness of Toy Story or Monsters, Inc. Nemo, which plunges a vulnerable little fish to the inky bottom of the ocean, also dips a fin into the deeper emotional waters of such traditional Disney masterpieces as Pinocchio.
Nemo is the sole surviving offspring of a clownfish named Marlin (Brooks), whose mate—along with countless fertilized eggs—was scarfed down by a shark in an attack on their home, a coral reef off Australia. On his first day of school Nemo, chafing at his father's fretful chaperoning, swims into open water beyond the reef. He's captured by a diver and added to a dental-office aquarium. While Nemo attempts to escape the tank aided by Gill, a tough, scarred tropical fish with the existential cool of William Holden in Stalag 17, Marlin sets out after his son. Accompanied by Dory, a regal blue tang suffering short-term memory problems (a weird but funny gag, thanks to DeGeneres's twittery delivery), he confronts primal terrors of the deep. Among these is our times' unshakable Spielbergian bugaboo, the Great White. (If Prokofiev were alive today, he'd be composing Peter and the Shark.) Its mouth, bristling with teeth, looks like a portable missile arsenal.
Which isn't to say the film is a trauma fest, Bambi with bubbles. A current of quicksilver humor sparkles through Nemo. That shark, named Bruce (which was what Steven Spielberg used to call the mechanical monster in Jaws), attends 12-step meetings to kick the fish-devouring habit. The animation is both sophisticated--creating two aquatic worlds, ocean and fish tank, is no lap around the kiddie pool--and breezily witty. When Marlin asks a school of fish for directions, they can't resist shuffling themselves into different answers, like a cheerleading squad with too many routines. (G)
BOTTOM LINE: Fin-omenal