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MR. BEAKS Peeks In On Pixar

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

I went to a friend’s tonight to screen the extended DVD version of LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, and Mr. Beaks was invited to join us. He turned me down, though, and wouldn’t explain why.

Looks like he had one hell of a reason...

FINDING NEMO (w. & d. Andrew Stanton)

Going to a Pixar movie anymore reminds me of watching Michael Jordan play basketball circa 1990; even if he didn’t drop in fifty-plus points, you were at least guaranteed of a few mind blowing dunks and maybe a gravity-defying reverse lay-up in traffic under the backboard. In other words, you’re ultimately witness to varying degrees of wonderful. FINDING NEMO, based on a rough work print screened for a very receptive recruited audience last night, appears to be shaping up as one of Pixar’s *less* wonderful efforts, meaning it might only make my Top Ten list for next year rather than cracking my Top Five.

Situated in what already appears to be a richly detailed underwater kingdom, FINDING NEMO tells the story of Marlin, a neurotic clown fish (voiced by Albert Brooks) who loses his mate and most of their spawn after a fairly intense shark attack in the opening moments of the film. Miraculously, one egg survives; he names it Nemo, honoring its mother’s last wish, and vows to protect the little one with his life for the rest of his days.

Cut to several fish years later, and Marlin has become a loving, but overly smothering father; he’s deathly afraid to let Nemo leave the anomie they call home, though it’s clearly time for the youngster to start “school”. Marlin relents, but he finds himself unable to let the child out of his sight for more than a minute without rushing to his side. When he finds his curious, independent offspring venturing out into unsafe waters on a dare from his friends, Marlin furiously chides the youngster, who in turn utters that three word phrase that pierces a parent’s heart like none other...

“I hate you.”

Defiantly, Nemo heads off to make good on his friends’ dare, only to inadvertently get himself captured by tropical fish wrangling scuba divers. Horrified, Marlin attempts to rescue Nemo, but the divers blow him back in the wake of their motor boat. Though all seems lost, the fearful, almost cowardly Marlin has no intention of shrinking from his promise, so he heads off into the big bad blue to find his son, no matter how improbable his quest may seem.

If there’s one element of the Pixar formula that’s beginning to wear ever so slightly thin, it’s their strict adherence to the buddy-comedy formula, and I have to admit I wasn’t terribly thrilled to learn that Ellen DeGeneres was to be Albert Brooks’s foil; however, like they did with Tim Allen, the Pixar folks know precisely how to extract a perfect vocal performance out of an actor with a seemingly exhausted shtick. As the flighty, short-term memory addled Dory – who happened to see the boat on which Nemo was whisked away (though she forgets it a half-second later) – DeGeneres is the comedic anchor of the film. Whether constantly reintroducing herself to Marlin, or tormenting him by trying to speak “whale”, Degeneres has recaptured that likeably loopy delivery that made her such a solid comedian, and it’s a joy to watch the animators feeding off of her enthusiasm as they further fashion this idiosyncratic character.

Meanwhile, Nemo finds himself imprisoned in a dentist’s fish tank with several other tropical treasures, where he is waiting to be made a gift (more like a sacrifice) to the man’s bratty, braces-bound granddaughter. Prime evidence of the trademark Pixar inventiveness can be evinced in the way Stanton and company turn not the aquarium, but the entire office into the fishes’ microcosm. Since they’ve nothing else to watch all day, they’ve all become experts in dentistry, engaging in jargon-laden observations as the doctor drills away at a patient’s tooth. Aided by voices as distinct as Willem Dafoe, Allison Janney, Stephen Root (my personal favorite, playing a dim-witted fish obsessed with the bubbling treasure chest) and Austin Pendleton, they form a typical, gently lunatic collection of supporting characters who take to Nemo right away, offering him a key role in their extremely far-fetched plan to escape their watery jail.

What most impressed me about the film at this stage is how the world Stanton has imagined is so fraught with danger. There seems to be a monster or predator of some menacing variety lingering about at every turn; in particular, there’s a genuinely scary encounter with a shark (named Bruce, of course) that starts off menacing, only to be defused and played for laughs. Then, quite unexpectedly, it veers back towards menace, setting off a thrilling pursuit in a sunken submarine. The way the shark’s eyes suddenly go black when it smells blood will give children nightmares for weeks. For the record, I think a good, clean scare like this is healthy.

This being a very rough assemblage, with lots of storyboards substituting for fully animated action, it’s impossible to accurately gauge FINDING NEMO’s place in the Pixar pantheon. While there doesn’t appear to be a jaw-dropping set-piece on the scale of the door chase from MONSTERS, INC., there are some nicely profound moments sprinkled amidst the fun, along with a theme – forging forward and accepting life’s inherent, and sometimes cruel, uncertainty (I doubt I’ll ever see a more thoughtful exchange between two characters dangling from the tongue of a whale again in my life) – that resonates in the wake of, yes, I’m going to say it, 9/11. So while I’m not seeing this film graduating to the level of their best work, I can’t say for sure that it won’t end up in that elite class.

We’re still a long way off from FINDING NEMO’s May release date; if there’s any company that can get it right (well, let’s say *more* right) between now and then, it’s Pixar.

Faithfully submitted,

Mr. Beaks

Wow. Okay. He saw a Pixar film a full seven months before the rest of us... yeah, I think it’s okay to hate him. A whole bunch.

And, man, this film sounds great, rumors to the contrary be damned...

"Moriarty" out.

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