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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: Finding Nemo

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Winner: Best Animated Feature, 2003

Director: Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich

One of the most critically and commercially successful animated films of the last decade, if not of all time, Finding Nemo has long since assured its place in the hearts and minds of movie lovers. Using a few of the tried and true tropes of the children's story template while also making it accessible and enjoyable for adults writer/director Andrew Stanton and his co-director Lee Unkrich created an instant and bona fide classic.

Finding Nemo begins with Nemo and his father Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), all alone following the death of Nemo's mother. The loss of a parent is a familiar theme in many children's films (The Little Mermaid, Bambi, The Lion King, etc.), as is the positioning of the protagonist in the role of outsider. Here, Nemo is outcast because he has one small, weak fin that results in taunting from his fellow fish. In an attempt to prove himself Nemo swims out into open waters and is captured by a diver. He's placed in a tank in a dentist's office and plots his escape and return home.

Marlin, meanwhile, is frantic to find his son and receives help from all manner of sea creatures, including Dory (voiced by Ellen Degeneres), a fish with short term memory loss. While Nemo is making his escape back to the ocean through a drain, Marlin and Dory part ways, and it is Dory who eventually finds Nemo, though she's now forgotten that she was helping to look for him in the first place.

Finding Nemo occasionally veers into some pretty dark territory, what with death and familial separation being used to turn and shape the plot. I think that when we reach adulthood, we tend to forget just how dark and heavy the films we saw as children tended to be. I mean, Bambi's mom dies! The fox and the hound can't be friends anymore! Simba's uncle tries to kill him! But children's stories are designed to be related in a simple, easily digestible way that also imparts a lesson (or lessons). They paint with broad strokes (there's "good" and "evil" and nothing inbetween), but they also help to lay the groundwork for some of the realities that will be encountered in the process of growing up.

Here Stanton uses an adventure story as a framework in which to tell a story that's ultimately about acceptance. Nemo is mocked for his deformity, Dory's memory problem makes her the target of Marlin's anger and frustration. Both prove to be brave and capable in spite of their shortcomings, showing that "different" isn't always equal to "bad." It relates this lesson in terms that are simple enough to be understood by a child but engaging enough to keep an adult's attention. Pixar's films always set the standard for animated films in any given year, but few have set the bar quite as high as Finding Nemo.

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