by Ed Symkus

Disney, the film company that, for decades, among other things, has made a name for itself by killing off the parents -- usually the mothers -- of its protagonists in animated films, has now likely set some kind of record. At the beginning of this epic underwater "road" movie, the happily married clown fish couple of Marlin (voice of Albert Brooks) and Coral (voice of Elizabeth Perkins) have just moved to new digs and are waiting for their 400 eggs to hatch.

But before you can say, "Sorry, Charlie," there's tragedy, and all that's left of the family is Marlin and one egg. This time, the mother is killed off when the son is still just an egg!

Some years later, a solid relationship has formed between Marlin and his son, Nemo (voice of Alexander Gould), but there's more than just a hint that Marlin, shaken by past events, has become and will stay an overprotective father.

The kid endures, though, and has no trouble with Dad's ways, until the first day of school. Nemo, who has a bum fin -- there's really no reason for this; it's probably just some not-so-subtle message about dealing with a handicap -- has always been inquisitive. But now, spurred on by other kids at school -- none of whom have their dads watching over them -- he becomes rebellious, says some things he doesn't mean, and gets caught in the net of a diver who's looking for some nice bright specimens for his fish tank.

How much heartbreak can a clown fish take? Marlin is beside himself and is determined to go after the boat that's now holding his son captive. But circumstances lead him to doing it with the "help" of a goofball blue tang named Dory (voice of Ellen DeGeneres), a ditzy fish with short-term memory loss (another handicap problem?).

Marlin and Dory make for one of the freshest and funniest screen couples ever seen in animation. A lot of credit has to go to the script they're working with, but even more belongs to Brooks and DeGeneres, who smoothly bump off of and mesh with each other's styles. Brooks is at his driest and most paranoid; DeGeneres literally babbles through the film, starting one or two sentences and actually finishing a couple of others.

So what begins as a search of desperation nicely shifts into a chatty escapade across the deep blue sea that's been created by the geniuses at Pixar. It's realistic under the waves, and, as seen from above, it's the best computer-generated water to date. And that's just the water. There's also an endless supply of characters down there, and a vibrant color palette that's both pleasing and wondrous.

One of the best roles in the film goes to a shark named Bruce (voice of Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna), who's just joined a step program and is trying to change his wicked ways. Unfortunately, he has a weak will and a hungry stomach.

Meanwhile, the film switches to what's happened to Nemo after his capture. Well, he ends up in a fish tank in a dentist's office.

Among his new pals that make up the "Tank Gang" is Gill (an outstanding voice job by Willem Dafoe), who sees in Nemo a way to plan yet another escape. That translates into more comic episodes and more accompanying terror.

These two separate stories -- of Marlin and Dory following an underwater trail to Nemo, and of Nemo trying to get out of captivity and back into the ocean -- eventually come together in Australia. There are predators along the way, there are problems in the fish tank and there are plenty of running gags. And, surprisingly for a Disney film, there's a very stoned-out surfer dude-type sea turtle named Crush (voice of director Andrew Stanton).

Near the end, the dentist's horrible little niece is introduced, to the accompaniment of the screaming strings from Bernard Herrmann's score to Psycho, which segues immediately into the similar sound of screaming seagulls -- a nice, subtle aural touch.

And though there are no outtakes (as in Toy Story 2 and Monsters Inc.), it's worth it to stick around for the end credits, just to see who might swim by.

Publication date: 05/29/03

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