Disney's homegrown cartoons remain hit-and-miss propositions. The one sure thing in the studio's arsenal is its partnership with Pixar Animation, which maintains its perfect record with its latest charmer, the fish tale ''Finding Nemo.''
The ''Toy Story'' movies, ''A Bug's Life,'' ''Monsters, Inc.'': It's become a given when you see the Pixar banner that a fun, foxy tale for all ages is about to unspool.
The computer animation of ''Finding Nemo'' represents another vault forward in digital imagery. The film captures seemingly every color of the rainbow and then some to create a lush undersea environment that's menacing yet wondrous, and stuffed to the gills with lovable bottom feeders.
While the story and jokes don't have quite the heart and wit of ''Toy Story 2'' and ''Monsters, Inc.,'' ''Finding Nemo'' is laced with smart humor and clever gags, and buoyed by another cheery story of mismatched buddies: a pair of fish voiced by Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres.
Director Andrew Stanton, co-director on ''A Bug's Life,'' had mulled an underwater adventure told through computer animation since a trip to Marine World in the early 1990s. Stanton's childhood recollection of a fish tank in a dentist's office gave him the plot hook for a rescue story when a young fish is separated from his dad and lands behind glass in an aquarium.
The story opens darkly as clown fish Marlin (Brooks) loses his wife and all but one of their 400 eggs to a predator.
Like many single parents who've survived tragedy, Marlin turns neurotically overprotective of his son, Nemo (voiced by 9-year-old Alexander Gould). Marlin is terrified to leave Nemo alone on his first day of ''fish school,'' and his worst fears are realized when divers net the boy in the Great Barrier Reef and take him away in a boat.
As he chases after them, Marlin bumps into chatty blue tang fish Dory (DeGeneres), whose inability to remember anything more than a minute or two provides many of the film's funniest moments. Dory does recall that she can read, and deciphers the only clue to Nemo's destination: one of the diver's scuba masks, bearing the address of a dental office in Sydney, Australia.
Marlin and Dory embark on a daring voyage to save Nemo. They rub fins with three reformed sharks (Barry Humphries, Eric Bana and Bruce Spence), who initiate Marlin and Dory into their Fish-eaters Anonymous circle, sharing their mantra, ''Fish are friends, not food.''
One of the sharks is slyly called Bruce, the name of the mechanical shark used in Steven Spielberg's ''Jaws.''
Dory and Marlin also journey through a vast forest of jellyfish, take a sloshing descent into the belly of a whale, encounter a school of fish (voiced by Pixar veteran John Ratzenberger) who provide directions, and hitch a ride with a caravan of sea turtles. (Director Stanton provides the voice of surfer-dude turtle Crush.)
Meantime, Nemo finds himself in a Sydney dentist's aquarium, where the oddball inhabitants are led by world-weary moorish idol fish Gill (Willem Dafoe), whose dreams of escape keep alive Nemo's hopes for reunion with his father.
Nemo gets help with his escape plans from friendly pelican Nigel (Geoffrey Rush) and the other aquarium captives, including starfish Peach (Allison Janney), blowfish Bloat (Brad Garrett) and hypochondriac fish Gurgle (Austin Pendleton).
Thomas Newman's rich orchestral score, augmented with funky percussive sounds, nicely propels Pixar's turgid, constantly moving undersea world.
Pixar has two films to go under its current deal with Disney, and the companies have been in negotiations on a new contract. Other studios are interested in hooking a distribution deal for Pixar films, and Pixar boss Steve Jobs wants better financial terms if the company is going to remain partners with Disney.
''Finding Nemo'' is a fresh lure for Disney to make sure Pixar doesn't become the one that got away.
''Finding Nemo,'' a Disney-Pixar release, is rated G. Running time: 100 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 No one under 17 admitted.
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