Pixar's "Finding Nemo" is the splashiest, happiest, most positively blissful family movie of the year. Adults will love it. Kids will love it. Ironic Gen Xers will love it because they can take their dates out for sushi afterward. Perfect.
Indeed, it seems that Pixar — the Silicon Valley-based production company behind "Toy Story" and "Monsters, Inc." — can do no wrong. This computer-animated tale of a fretful tropical fish who conquers his fear of the open ocean to rescue his only son is a veritable spawning ground of all-ages delights. The dialogue is lively and droll, the animation vivid and the themes of parental separation as universal as ever. Granted, "Toy Story" had more fresh, mischievous energy, and "Monsters, Inc." was a bit funnier, but this one will hold its own, too, especially against the cinematic chum that passes for family entertainment these days.
Like all Pixar offerings, "Finding Nemo" is essentially the story of a lost kid trying to get back home. Albert Brooks (“Defending Your Life") lends his voice and myriad neuroses to the role of Marlin, an orange-and-white- striped clown fish who can't step outside the "house" (a succulent pink sea anemone) without suffering paralyzing waves of anxiety. When he was a younger fish, Marlin saw his mate and entire litter get wiped out by a barracuda — his entire litter, that is, except for Nemo (voiced by 9-year-old TV actor Alexander Gould), a bright young lad with a gimp fin whom the underwater widower has sworn to protect at all costs. Subsequently, Nemo grows up to be a sheltered and somewhat rebellious young fish.
When the time comes for Nemo to attend elementary school with the other adolescent sea creatures who inhabit Australia's Great Barrier Reef, Marlin is understandably nervous. Sadly, Marlin's worst fears are realized when Nemo is scooped up by a scuba diver and whisked away on a motorboat. Now it's up to Marlin to confront his anxieties and find a way to rescue his lone offspring, with only an inscribed diving mask to offer a clue of the boy's whereabouts.
Marlin is joined on his quest by Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), an optimistic blue tang whose helpful nature is complicated by the fact that she has severe "Memento"- esque short-term memory deficits and is constantly forgetting both Marlin's identity and the nature of their journey. Meanwhile, Nemo finds himself in an aquarium in a dentist's office overlooking the Sydney Harbor, where a helpful network of similarly imprisoned fish — including a battle-scarred moorish idol named Gill (Willem Dafoe) — formulate elaborate yet ill-fated plans for escape.
Writer/director Andrew Stanton — a Pixar veteran making his debut behind the figurative camera — and co-screenwriters Bob Peterson and David Reynolds (“Late Night With Conan O'Brien") load up "Finding Nemo" with all kinds of anthropomorphic cleverness. There are fat, fearsome sharks who form an Alcoholics Anonymous-style support group for reformed predators (“My name is Bruce, and it's been six months since my last fish!"). There are deadhead giant turtles, social worker pelicans and young octopuses who spontaneously ink themselves when surprised or scared. Per Pixar tradition, the characters are fantastically lifelike, with eerily human body language and facial characteristics. DeGeneres' character, Dory, is especially well-rendered. At times, you can actually see the Emmy winner's soft, droopy features take shape in an animated blue fish face.
In the end, Marlin learns a lesson about sheltering your children too much — sometimes, even with mako sharks and poisonous jellyfish about, you just have to let them sink or swim for themselves. It's a lesson kids will appreciate, anyway, and certainly more than audiences could possibly have gleaned from such recent fare as "The Lizzie McGuire Movie" and "Daddy Day Care," both sterling examples of family filmmaking at its most inane. With water that shallow, even a movie about fish can stand tall.
Starring: The voices of Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Willem Dafoe, Alexander Gould
Playing: Opens Friday throughout the Valley
Rating: G (all audiences)
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes