Shit. I don’t know.
Ratatouille has an insanely high Metacritic score (at 96/100, it’s Pixar’s highest score to date), but it hardly gets any replay action in my house. (I still think its pretty darn special, though). Many folks think that the Cars films (especially its inferior sequel) are the weakest, but my four-year-old son thinks the original is the most ”awesomest” film of all time. His whole world revolves around Lightning McQueen and Doc Hudson. And there are people out there who think that the Toy Story trilogy is cinema’s best triple feature slate, outranking the original Star Wars or Godfather films. And ya know what? I ain’t gonna argue with them.
So does Pixar actually have a Best Film? Ask a crowd of people on the street and you will get a lot of different answers. And that, my friends, is the beauty of Pixar. They have produced a ridiculous amount of great films and you will find someone out there who has a deep affection for at least one of their 13 titles. As a collective bunch, the films of Pixar exemplify the magic and creativity of the Disney brand.
But if I were to harbor a guess and pick a film from Pixar that best defines the animation giant, it would have to be Finding Nemo. I think this is the film that represents Pixar at its best (and worst).
Let’s start with the voice cast. One thing Pixar does best is hire some great voice talent. Hanks and Allen as Buzz and Woody. Newman as Doc Hudson. Ratzenberger as, well, a lot of characters. But in Finding Nemo, the character of Dory is completely and perfectly personified by Ellen DeGeneres. Now, DeGeneres is no Hanks or Newman, but as a forgetful blue-finned tang named Dory, she owns this film. Finding Nemo is filled with dramatic moments and tension-filled adventures, so the gentle and flighty humor provided by DeGeneres gives the film tremendous balance. Albert Brooks, whose too-infrequent presence is always welcome in Hollywood, hits just the right notes as Nemo’s frantic, overprotective dad. You also have Geoffrey Rush, Willem Dafoe and Eric Bana making memorable voice appearances as well.
The animation in Finding Nemo has arguably some of the best artwork in Pixar’s remarkable canon. The Incredibles may have the best action sequences, while the Toy Story films have such an abundance of heart, but Finding Nemo has visuals that pop frame after frame. Watching this film on our 50″ plasma TV is incredibly eye-pleasing. It’s impossible to look away, especially during the jellyfish scene or when the gang gets caught up on the East Australian Current. The attention to detail is staggering, which is no surprise to any Pixar fan. There’s a dreamlike quality to the underwater visuals, an imaginative recapturing of life under the sea.
One problem I had with the film is that there are moments that are too dark for smaller children. Pixar usually does a good job balancing adult themes with children’s sentiments, but Finding Nemo is a little bit off-kilter. I know not all Pixar films are geared towards the same audience (Ratatouille and WALL-E, for instance, probably resonate more to adults than children), but Finding Nemo is clearly intended for audiences of all ages. Killing the mother (off-screen) in the film’s opening sequence is quite jarring, as well as the introduction of Bruce, the great white shark who attempts to stave off his addiction of eating smaller fish. It’s just a shame that I have to skip past the edgier scenes for my little ones.
Another criticism that’s common among Pixar detractors is that their stories are cliche-ridden, and that Finding Nemo is Pixar at its most cloyingly predictable. While I do agree that there are some elements of the story that lack originality and surprises, I have to say that it’s perfectly necessary to have some sort of familiar structure when assembling a family picture. Sometimes they get it just right by being wholly original (see WALL-E), but when they fall back to the conventions of screenwriting 101, the picture tends to suffer. (Cars seems to be Pixar’s worst offender of this, though I believe it is this banality of the characters and story that makes Cars so much easier to swallow for smaller kids). Finding Nemo overcomes this obstacle, for the most part, by including character dynamics that feel fresh and even innovative. The heart of the film is not necessarily that of Nemo and his father, Marlin, but actually of Dory and Marlin. Those two characters bring out the best and worst of each other and, during their enlightening exchanges, the writers give them great depth and material that most feature films would envy.
At the time of its release, Finding Nemo was Pixar’s fifth film. The world had already seen Toy Story 1 and 2, A Bug’s Life and Monsters, Inc. Movie-goers and critics had become aware of how talented these animators were. What they didn’t know back in 2003 was that Pixar wasn’t even close to peaking.
But then again, it’s 2012, and we still don’t know if they’ve peaked. They are quite the anomaly, aren’t they?