Finding Nemo

About the only thing the Walt Disney Company can do reliably anymore is let its Pixar division do its thing.

Left to their own devices, the whizzes at Pixar produce a computer-animated film every couple years that is as funny, clever and charming as anything within its field of competition. Their streak, which has thus far included the “Toy Story” films, “A Bug’s Life” and “Monsters Inc.,” continues with “Finding Nemo,” a whimsical undersea adventure that, like its predecessors, is both simple and nuanced, hiding deep themes beneath colorful layers of guileless entertainment.

Disney films have single-parent families, of course, and that trend is not bucked here. Marlin (voice of Albert Brooks), a small clownfish somewhere in the Pacific, is the nervous, overprotective father of young Nemo (Alexander Gould). Nemo’s mother and siblings were all lost in a struggle against a larger fish when Nemo was still in the egg, and Marlin — a bit neurotic to begin with — has reacted by worrying over his son endlessly.

The first day of school is especially traumatic for Marlin, and Nemo is eager to get away from his embarrassing dad and explore the ocean. After a tussle over Dad’s rules, Nemo wanders away from the group and is nabbed by a diver, who whisks him back to an aquarium in a dentist’s office in Sydney, Australia. Marlin is hysterical.

The rest of the film follows two stories: Nemo’s new friends in the aquarium, who want to help him get back to the ocean (luckily, the dentist’s office is adjacent to the harbor); and Marlin’s frantic search for his son. He encounters Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a dumbly optimistic, scatterbrained little fish who, like the protagonist in “Memento,” has a very limited short-term memory. They meet all sorts of amusing characters in their search, and Nemo’s fishtank friends are an odd lot themselves. (One fish, named Deb, thinks her reflection in the glass tank is her sister, Flo. When the tank gets murky and no reflection is extant, she swims around asking, “Has anyone seen Flo?”)

The film is wonderfully inventive, having obviously been written by men with exceedingly curious minds. So much of it makes perfect sense: OF COURSE turtles that ride on the gulf streams would talk like surfers. OF COURSE startling an octopus would make it “ink” itself. OF COURSE swordfish would speak in French accents and engage in duels. The ocean is such a fascinating world, and who better to explore it with a keen imagination than the guys who decided toys could talk and monsters really do come from our closets?

Where the film is different from its predecessors is in its humor. It has an easy, gentle flow, less focused on getting laughs and more on telling a fanciful story. When it tries to be funny, it certainly is – it’s replete with sly movie references – it just isn’t as single-minded about it. It’s a gem of a movie, and exactly what we expect from our friends at Pixar.

A- (1 hr., 41 min.; G.)