Fish Tales

The delightful Finding Nemo; the weightless Italian Job.

| June 05, 2003

What is this?" I snarled when I first saw the trailer for Disney's Finding Nemo. It was at a Treasure Planet preview, and somehow the sound had been knocked out to a strange muffle. That, combined with the hazy/misty-looking visuals convinced me that this seemingly unintelligible film had been developed for the prenatal. Yes, Disney -- a mega-corp that gets accused by right- and left-wingers alike of trying to rule the world -- was conquering the last unspoiled demographic: the unborn. Silly me, the sound was just messed up -- as the Treasure Planet viewing would reveal. But even given the sound-handicap, this didn't seem like a movie that would do well, what with tame, G-rated humor and a teaser that didn't reveal enough of the film's gorgeous visuals. And since my predictions are almost always incorrect (anybody read my Oscar picks article?), I was wrong about Finding Nemo too. It's delightful.

Albert Brooks voices Marlin, an orange clownfish who, in the film's opening scene, is warming up a new home (a stylish anemone) with his lovely wife, Coral (Elizabeth Perkins), and 400 unhatched offspring. Half are to be named "Marlin Jr.," the other half "Coral Jr.," if you ask the unimaginative Marlin. Coral wants to name at least one of them "Nemo." Then tragedy strikes. A shark attacks their new community, and Marlin is knocked out in the fray. When he awakens, Coral and 399 eggs are gone. Marlin finds one left and calls him "Nemo" as tribute to his wife and promises to never let harm come to him when he's born.

Later, Nemo is ready for school, and the overprotective Marlin just can't let go of his only son. Also, Nemo seems to be born with an abnormally small right fin. They make the most of it, but it causes Marlin extra concern. So concerned is he that Marlin follows Nemo to school on his first day and tries to drag Nemo home when he strays from the class toward the open sea. Nemo is embarrassed and, to prove that he isn't weak and helpless, swims out to touch a nearby expedition boat. Nemo is caught, and the 'fraidy cat Marlin vows to stop at nothing to find him.

Fortunately, Nemo has been caught for exhibition and is delivered to a dentist's aquarium in nearby Sydney, Australia. This dentist, like mine, has a problem with pelicans flying in the office window and talking to the fish, so Nemo is not without friends in his new home. They include a blowfish, starfish, shrimp, and a conspiratorial angelfish (Willem Dafoe), who all try and help Nemo get back to his dad. Marlin, meanwhile, meets a forgetful blue tang (Ellen DeGeneres) who, despite her short-term memory loss, pushes Marlin ahead with her fearlessness and blissful ignorance. Dangers ahead: jellyfish, seagulls (with the hilariously limited vocabulary of the singular, greedy mantra: "mine!"), the dentist's screeching niece, and three ambiguous Aussie sharks (each more realistic than, say, those found in Jaws 3).

This is really a great movie for parents and their children to enjoy almost equally. A woman in the otherwise unrowdy audience could be heard in the film's last act to shout, "Swim for it, Marlin!" (she had no kids with her).

Brooks is great here, and since we can't see his sour face, it is easier to enjoy just his neuroses -- his emotions are much more palatable telegraphed by the cute clownfish than his own dour mug. DeGeneres is a breezy riot as the chipper Dory, grinning like an idiot most of the way through but delivering a truly heart-wrenching speech toward the end about love and friendship that transcends kiddie-movie anime and shines as art. The rest of the A-list cast is, um, A-list.

And there's a fantastic message. For parents, it's a parable about knowing when to let your child do their own thing, when to trust them and when it is time to let them make their own decisions. For children, it's about when to trust your parents; that independence is good but wisdom is better, and usually Mom and Dad do know what's best. This "moral" is elegantly slipped into a rousing adventure without seeming preachy or overbearing. Also, there's the subplot about Nemo's abnormal fin. When was the last time a cartoon movie dealt sensitively and seriously with a child's handicap?

I'm one of those people who is perfectly content to let Disney rule the world. They make (usually) great movies, make kids happy, envision the world to be a better place, and provide healthy stock portfolios to the grownups smart enough to have invested in them before, say, The Little Mermaid.

Mr. Eisner? I'm here for duty, sir. Just tell me what to do.

The Italian Job starts out great. Picture it: beautiful Venice. Gondolas, canals, architecture! There's a plot, and Mark Wahlberg is behind it. There's gold in them thar palazzi, and our anti-heroes are going to get it. Fortunately, there's a crack team backing up Mr. Wahlberg: a computer expert (Seth Green), an explosives guy (Mos Def), an inside man (Edward Norton), a getaway driver (Jason Statham), and a veteran safe-cracker pulling off One Last Heist (this is the kind of role that Clint Eastwood is defining -- as a lead -- in his twilight years but is handled here by Donald Sutherland in a supporting role). The target? Thirty-five million dollars in beautiful gold bricks, locked in a safe on the third story of a lush, Venetian home. Do they sneak in and crack the safe? No -- bring the safe to them. These guys are the best. But there's a hitch: Norton's in this for himself.

After the getaway (dizzyingly played out in speedboats on the canals, to the chagrin of floating tourists and vendors), they all meet in the nearby snowy mountains, decide what they will each do with their share, and toast their newfound wealth. John Bridger (Sutherland) has regrets, and he'd like to spend more time with his daughter Stella. He's been in jail for half of her life, and it's time to make it up to her. Lyle (Green) wants a stereo so loud it will blow the clothes off a girl. Left Ear (Mos Def, and so named "Left Ear" from a childhood toilet explosion that left him half-deaf) wants a house in Spain and a room for his shoes. Handsome Rob (Statham and, yes, handsome) wants a cool car. Charlie Croker (Wahlberg) is advised by fatherly mentor Sutherland to settle down. Paraphrase: "There are two kinds of thieves. One that steals to enrich their life, one that steals to define it. Don't be the latter. Find a nice woman you want to spend the rest of your life with and never let go." Steve (Norton) is the latter kind and defines his thievery by cheating out his friends, gunning down Bridger before the rest can escape, plunging their van into icy water, believed dead by Steve.

One year later: Stella (Charlize Theron) is a top-knotch safe technician -- she cracks them to test them. Charlie shows up with an offer she can't refuse: They know where Steve is now, and they know how to get the gold back. What they don't have is the Bridger who can crack Steve's safe. Will she help them? This time it's personal.

After Ocean's Eleven, which I moaned about while reviewing this year's comparably tepid Confidence, it's hard to get involved in a heist movie without a certain amount of charisma from the leads. It's just hard to emotionally buy into Marky Mark and his Funky Bunch of thieves, either for fun or for drama. There's a score to settle: the murder of Stella's father and Charlie's mentor, but neither Wahlberg nor Theron is given any real dramatic meat to chew on, and nobody in this cast besides Sutherland has the gravitas or the charm for us to want them to succeed at, essentially, ruining someone else's life by taking their fortune. (I'm talking the initial heist here, not the revenge-plunder of Steve.) And, sadly, Sutherland is dead after the first few scenes anyway, leaving precious little screen presence to hold onto. Wahlberg does his furrowed-eyebrow Planet of the Apes kind of hollow leading-man acting here, and Theron looks good, but there is just no chemistry between them. (There's supposed to be.)

Norton gets to stretch his wings a bit here by playing a first-class A-hole, but the writing makes him seem almost cartoonishly boorish. There is, however, a tasty scene between him and Theron when she dresses up like a cable repair-person to check out his security system. (Steve never met the daughter is why this can happen.) This plays out like the start of several porno movies I've read about that feature the greasy lout at home waiting impatiently for the sexy repair lady to show up. This is not lost on Norton's Steve who tries to get his porno groove on. Theron in cable repair? Only in the movies.

What follows is a series of chases and second-guessing, all sadly revealed in the commercials for the movie. So, enjoy the scenery (Venice, that is; little is made of the lush possibilities once the proceedings move to L.A. and, supposedly, the biggest traffic jam in history) and the fast cars (all played by Mini Coopers!), because there just aren't any surprises in this Italian Job. n

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