"Finding Nemo" is the latest in Pixar's string of computer-generated animated features, a string something like a necklace with a couple of diamonds on it - "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" - and a few semiprecious stones - "A Bug's Life," "Monsters, Inc.," and now "Finding Nemo."
As always with animated films, the skill and ingenuity applied to creating the visual images is quickly taken for granted by the audience; what makes "Toy Story" and particularly "Toy Story 2" memorable is the quality of, well, the story. "Toy Story 2" postulates a very difficult existential question for its hero, and he must confront it and decide on an answer in the course of the film: Is it better to remain in stasis and live forever, or to grow and change and mature and then die? In the course of searching for an answer, Woody takes us through a short course in Sartre, while keeping us in stitches with some neat physical and verbal comedy.
"Finding Nemo," unfortunately, has a story that's barely there: An Australian clownfish named Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) is overprotective of his son Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould), the one survivor after Marlin's wife and 399 other eggs have been eaten by a barracuda. When young Nemo tries to break away for an adventure of his own, he's caught by a scuba diver and taken to the aquarium in a dentist's office in Sydney. The rest of the film is a series of alternating episodes as Marlin follows him down the coast and Nemo tries to escape from the aquarium before he is given to the dentist's dreadful little niece as a present. Can you guess that they will be reunited? Good for you.
Since we know the end in advance, the body of the film must be inventive enough, textured enough, rich enough in in its characters' choices, good or bad, to hold us and help us identify with them: love them, feel for them, even hate them when they go astray as we would hate ourselves in the same situation. But "Finding Nemo" gives us nothing but variations on the same theme: find Nemo. Scene after scene, sequence after sequence, everything is predictable and boring. It doesn't help that Brooks is in his most unattractive nebbish mode throughout, with a one-note script that has him repeating himself ad nauseum. A brighter character is the blue tang Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres), who accompanies Marlin on his search. She has advantages (she can speak to the whales) and disadvantages (she has short-term memory loss). But always cheerful, she is the best thing in the movie.
Almost as good is Willem Dafoe, as the voice of Gill, the black-and-white-striped Moorish Idol, leader of the group in the dentist's fish tank. For once his great bass voice is set to the proper visuals and a believable character.
Some critics are excited about the skill needed to make a film set underwater, with its currents and churns and lifelike swimming motions; I appreciate that too. But someone should have stopped writer-director Andrew Stanton early on and pointed out that genius in the service of the trivial is ultimately worthless.