The most common talking points about Pixar Animation Studios -- their mighty strides in the field of computer animation, their shaky relations with corporate "presenter" Disney -- too often obscure the larger point that they simply make the best family movies around. Pixar's pics have enough vaudeville moxie to keep the kids entertained, yet their clear-eyed depictions of juvenile rites of passage are enough to put a lump in any sensitive adult's throat.
The studio's previous "Monsters, Inc." brilliantly captured that moment in any child's development when it outgrows its terror of the things that go bump in the night. "Finding Nemo" shows us the flip side, allegorizing the sometimes-painful process by which parents must suspend their own fears to send their children out into a threatening world.
Letting go is hard to do when you're Marlin (voice of Albert Brooks), a neurotic clownfish who has already suffered the consumption of his wife and children by a larger fish. Only one heir survives: "Nemo" (Alexander Gould), a gutsy little fella with an underformed appendage his dad refers to as a "lucky fin." (This nod toward the normalization of childhood deformity is beautifully understated.) Reticent to even send Nemo off to school, the over-protective Marlin ends up no-no-ing his boy right into the net of a waiting fisherman. Nemo is whisked off to Australia, where he becomes the latest inhabitant of a dentist's crowded aquarium -- and an intended gift for a terrible tyke who just can't seem to keep her pets alive.
Marlin swallows his fear of the open sea and swims off in hot pursuit, encountering on the way an oceanful of lively characters. His chief compadre is Dory (Ellen Degeneres), a ditzy blue tang with a lack of short-term memory that necessitates repeated personal introductions and recapitulations of the movie's plot. That this one-joke premise becomes a complete and delightful character is typical of Nemo, which garners alternating laughs and pathos from various real-world fish traits and behaviors. Listen for Barry "Dame Edna Everage" Humphries as a shark who's trying to swear off fish, and for Willem Dafoe as Gill, the big boss of the dentist's tank and the mastermind of numerous failed escape attempts.
Of course, it's a terrific movie to look at: The gorgeous oceanic vistas make an affecting contrast with the hemmed-in artificiality of the tank. On its visual elements alone, "Finding Nemo" could get almost any kid started on a love of nature -- even if us older specimens know that it's a deep understanding of human nature that keeps the whole thing swimming.