I CAN imagine the story pitch: A motherless child with a stunted limb is abducted and held prisoner along with several other physically and emotionally scarred victims. Meanwhile, his neurotic, illiterate father is forced to enlist the aide of a beautiful stranger with short-term memory loss to decipher the only clue left at the crime scene, even while the pair narrowly averts such threats as a trio of predatory thugs foundering in a 12-step program.
"Finding Nemo" sounds more like Neil LaBute than Walt Disney.
Did I mention that they're all fish?
With its cast of damaged heroes and villains, Pixar Animation Studios' latest computer-generated adventure is a captivating and richly resonant aquatic fable, with characters whose gills and fins belie their deliciously human (that is, flawed) personalities.
Set on a coral reef near Australia, the action opens with a bang -- or rather a chomp -- that raises the bar for act-one, scene-one tragedy. Marlin, a clown fish (voice of Albert Brooks), is traumatized when his wife (Elizabeth Perkins) and 399 of her eggs become, well, sushi and caviar for a hungry neighbor. Move over "Bambi."
Understandably, Daddy is a little anxious about the one surviving egg, who grows into the titular Nemo (Alexander Gould), a sweet little swimmer with a bum fin who, in testing the limits of his father's stifling overprotectiveness, winds up in the net of a scuba diver en route to the aquarium of a dentist's office in Sydney.
Fortunately, a mask has fallen off the boat with the fishnapper's name and address written on it. That's where Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) comes in. Somehow, the blue tang can read; she just can't remember what she has read from one minute to the next. She and Marlin become allies in the search for Nemo, a quest that takes them not only into the company of three sharks in unconvincing recovery from an addiction to fish as food (Barry Humphries, Eric Bana and Bruce Spence), but into a field of jellyfish and the East Australian Current, a fast-moving sea lane where they encounter Crush (director Andrew Stanton), an aimless surfer-dude sea turtle who points them in the direction of Sydney Harbor.
Meanwhile, Nemo has befriended his fellow captives, a motley group of detainees from the pet shop, including the Moorish idol Gill (William Dafoe), a grotesquely scarred veteran of one too many escape attempts whose defeatism is given a momentary boost by the arrival of someone small -- and naive -- enough to aid in his plot to sabotage the tank's filter mechanism and escape out the window while the aquarium is being cleaned.
It's a dangerous gambit, but no more risky than Marlin's mission, which seems to overlook the fact that, even if he and Dory get to where they're going in one piece, it's a long way from harbor to the tank where Nemo is being held. Chalk it up to a father's love, a friendly pelican and the magic of computer animation, through which all things are possible.
Yes, the excitement of "Finding Nemo" can get a bit intense. I heard several younger children crying at more than one point in the film. Even scarier than the wannabe-vegetarian sharks is a deep-sea angler fish with a phosphorescent headlamp, a bad underbite -- and about 400 razor-sharp teeth. But it's funny and deeply touching, too, and Pixar's attention to minute details of characterization -- lobsters speak with New England accents, seagulls are mindless, yapping clones fixated on their next meal -- pay off big time.
"Finding Nemo" may be a fish tale, but its story of the paradox of love -- knowing when to hold on means knowing when to let go -- is profoundly humane and human.
FINDING NEMO (G, 104 minutes) -- Contains frightening sea creatures and emotional intensity. Area theaters.