Finding Nemo (Stanton and Unkrich, 2003) — 10 Years Later

finding nemoThe older and more experienced I get, the more confidence I have in my own judgment. That’s as it should be. When it comes to “family films,” however, it feels as though each passing year allows me to drift further and further from any sort of critical consensus about what is desirable within the genre and what particular films meet the criteria for meriting praise.

What I Said Then

Looking back at the films of 2003, I called Finding Nemo the “most overrated” film of the year. The sum total of my critical comments came within a roundup of the best and worst films of the year. I said:

For “most overrated film of the year,” I’ll stick with my first choice: Finding Nemo. For the first time since I’ve been writing these year-end columns, the most overrated film is one that I actually like (rather than one annoyed me). It was good, really, I liked it. Honestly. It just wasn’t that good.

It’s not hard for indifference like that to feed a decade-long inertia, and apart from sporadic discussions about the overall success of Pixar’s offerings, I haven’t thought much–okay, at all–about Finding Nemo since its initial theatrical release.

What I Say Now

For the first five to ten minutes of a new viewing, I thought perhaps Nemo would capture my heart and make me rethink my lukewarm response. The world building is sharp, and the color palette reminds me of classic, hand-drawn animation rather than long for it.

Then the story started, and I found myself totally unengaged by the quest/chase structure, even with a heavy overlay of parental guilt and childish humor. (Example: Dora has short term memory loss, so she keeps thinking of the same object–Marlin–in a twenty-questions style guessing game.)

Has there been a shift in the way movies marketed to kids portray parents? It was hard not to think about Brave while watching Nemo, and while I appreciated the balance provided by Gill (Willem Dafoe), a surrogate protector who is too risk-tolerant where Marlin (Albert Brooks) is too protective, I still thought the message was hewed a bit too close to the “adults are stupid” pandering that mars many a modern family film. It is Marlin, not Nemo who is called upon to deliver that “it’s all my fault” line that usually signals where a Disney film’s allegiance lies in terms of blame apportionment. I appreciated the attempts to create a father-son story rather than just another princess story, but Nemo and dad are separated most of the film and the relationship that develops between Marlin and Dora actually packs more emotional weight.

The real weakness of the film, for me, though, was that the characters were just so “blah.” There is a great amount of visual creativity in rendering the characters, but twenty minutes after it was over, I had to look up their names on IMDB.

The Verdict

Finding Nemo won the Academy Award for best animated feature of the year. Viewers at IMDB have ranked it one of the Top 150 most popular films of all time. Critics have been equally kind to the film, giving it a glitzy 99% “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes. The film is not just esteemed, it is beloved. Do I think the rest of the world is wrong? Not exactly. I just don’t have much to add to my initial impressions from ten years ago.

It was good; I liked it. Really.

It just wasn’t that good.

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