Finding Nemo: Pixar/Disney
July 31, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

You could trawl the seven seas and not net a funnier, more beautiful, and more original work of art and comedy than Finding Nemo, the dazzling new computer-animated adventure about a fishy father and son that furthers Pixar Animation Studios’ record streak of excellence. Fins and scales are a logical next step, I suppose, for moviemakers who previously romped so joyously with toys, bugs, and monsters. But nothing — including what felt like a year’s worth of teasers I regularly ignored at the multiplex — prepared me for the elation evoked by a neurotically cautious, bright-orange-and-white-striped clownfish named Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) and his considerably bolder son, Nemo (9-year-old Alexander Gould, already a pro from his work on ”Ally McBeal”), as each swims his own hero’s journey.

No less innovative than ”The Matrix” and a triumphant directorial debut for Andrew Stanton (the Pixar veteran who also devised the original story, cowrote the screenplay with Bob Peterson and David Reynolds, and voices a sea turtle given to surfer-dude-speak), this epic teems with characters worth caring about. It just happens they’re cartoon fish, a special-interest group that hasn’t been properly employed since the demise of the hip, ”Howdy Doody”-era kids’ TV puppet show ”Diver Dan.”

Separated from his overprotective father in a moment of youthful curiosity familiar to anyone who has taken a kid to the mall, Nemo is scooped up along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef by a dentist and hobbyist diver with an office fish tank to fill, while the horrified Marlin watches. It’s a frightening scene, a Disney classic moment of darkness right up there with Simba’s witness of Mufasa’s death in ”The Lion King.” (In best, if most disturbing, Disney tradition, infant Nemo lost his mother early in the story, a two-parent household apparently regarded as a boon for child development but a bust for drama.) From then on, though, ”Finding Nemo” charts its own exhilarating, atmospheric course, with Nemo bravely steering his one underdeveloped fin that flutters with a little whir (the sound is a pretty, almost inaudibly constant pittle-pittle-pittle). In all of the protagonists — Everyfish — qualities of good and bad, bravery and weakness coexist. And thus is each notably…human.

As nervous-nellie Marlin, Brooks personifies anxiety with a gusto denied him by the insipidness of his similar role in ”The In-Laws,” but he’s also capable of taking risks and learning to enjoy the thrill of mastery. Dory, the friendly blue tang fish who joins Marlin on his rescue mission, has a lousy short-term memory but a great capacity for friendship and the good luck to be voiced with perfect pitch by Ellen DeGeneres; the comedian’s bright sweetness warms Dory’s permanent state of enthusiastic dither. A trio of sharks the two meet along the way are in a self-help program to reform their wicked, fish-eating ways and spruce up their reputations. (Barry Humphries sets aside his Dame Edna personality to voice the alpha male — named Bruce, with a nod to ”Jaws” — who anticipates resistance to his outreach efforts: ”Why trust a shark, right?”) And each of the fellow ichthyic inmates in Nemo’s new fishbowl home has a more evolved, compelling personality than just about any live-action dramatic character out today: While Gill (Willem Dafoe), the tough old specimen who dominates the territory, sizes up the newcomer, the rest of the gang (voiced by Allison Janney, Austin Pendleton, and Vicki Lewis, among others) demonstrate an enthralled-spectator understanding of dental procedures.

Like ”The Simpsons,” ”Finding Nemo” sustains its own comic universe of intelligent life, a thronging biosphere of amusement simultaneously scaled for children and pitched for knowing adults (”I’m a natural blue!” Dory insists). The seagulls alone, nuttily blank-eyed like the penguin in ”The Wrong Trousers” and cawing ”Mine?! Mine?! Mine!” with an insistence suitable to ”The Birds,” are worthy of their own spin-off series. But while the zingy story surges forward on currents of wit, influenced by trends in comedy improv and, yes, advances in psychotherapy (”You think you can do these things, but you just can’t,” Marlin tells Nemo, before each is forced to test the limits of his self-confidence), ”Finding Nemo” floats in a gorgeous, painterly, watery world made possible by production designer Ralph Eggleston, his team of artists, and computer programs at a boggling level of sophistication.

Citing the naturalistic animal life in ”Bambi” as their reference, the filmmakers summon up the shifting light and motion of their animal kingdom with poetic precision disguised as fun. In this seamless blending of technical brilliance and storytelling verve, the Pixar team has made something as marvelously soulful and innately, fluidly American as jazz.

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