Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #8

Re: Finding Nemo (2003), Wall-E (2008)

As they say in talk radio, I am a “long time reader, first time writer.” I truly enjoy your writing on this site and check it often; my only wish is that there were more of it. I also find myself in agreement with most everything you have to say. I have been a huge fan of Pixar over the years. To my mind, The Incredibles is perhaps one of the most perfect films made for any audience and on a par with Mary Poppins or It’s a Wonderful Life (or even Apocalypse Now if you want to go there). Their sheer output of good to excellent movies is staggering.

But there is a kind of “Circle of Life” rule in the movie business that any successful artistic enterprise eventually begins to believe its own hype, becomes more complacent or self-indulgent, and thus sows the seeds of its own demise. To my mind (and I was almost alone in my assessment), I saw sad confirmation of this in Finding Nemo, a film (admittedly gorgeous to look at — I mean we’re still talking about Pixar) where comedy and high concepts were sacrificed for Berkeley-esque platitudes about “special” needs and inclusiveness. Ironically to me, that film was almost universally hailed as the studio’s masterpiece (and, I believe, is still its most profitable film).

Their track record has been spotty but above average ever since (Brad Bird has been a real shot in the arm), but has reached a new low with WALL-E. As a mere consumer of films I enjoy and judge a film for what it is saying up on the screen. Again, WALL-E is a beautiful film (though the inclusion of live actors was jarring) with nothing to say. Perhaps there were too many hands involved: it seems they were trying to make an environmental film but economic concerns forced them to hedge their bets so much (or perhaps “code their message” so that only the faithful would be in on it) that they were left with nothing but a Chaplinesque love story. Again, this film has been praised to the skies (though perhaps more praised than watched) and I can only wonder where the studio is headed.

Redemption from the aforementioned rule and trend reversals are always possible (think of Disney’s The Little Mermaid or even the Coen brothers’ Fargo), but I have seen no one even acknowledge this problem at Pixar. For me, this site has always been “spot on” in its observations, so I’m writing to ask if you find any substance to what I have observed.

Thanks for writing, and for your thoughtful comments.

Your WALL-E skepticism, though very different from my take, is entirely reasonable, and you aren’t at all alone in feeling that way about the film.

I’ve seen WALL-E twice, and I’m over the moon about it. For me, it works transcendently as pure poetry, as mood and atmosphere and imagery. A “Chaplinesque love story,” yes — with a blend of strangeness, slapstick, wonder, awe, terror, obsession and silliness that is utterly unique and haunting. I see it as daring art on a high level, and a rare moviegoing experience that I can only be grateful for — though, again, I can understand others feeling differently.

I have to admit, though, that I’m gobsmacked by your take on Finding Nemo, in connection with which my only regret is that my current “DVD Picks” review is so embarrassingly short and shallow — something I’ll have to rectify.

“Berkeley-esque platitudes about ‘special’ needs and inclusiveness”? How about devastating insights into parental anxieties? How about one of the most touching and wrenching father-son relationships in animation history, if not all of cinema?

What is more affecting than Marlin’s slow and painful journey of learning to let Nemo go, of allowing him to succeed or fail on his own? What is more poignant than those two wide-eyed moments of realization — Marlin on the whale’s tongue, Nemo listening to the pelican — the beleagured dad grasping the extent of his protectiveness, the disillusioned son beginning to see his father in a new light? (“You think you can do these things, but you can’t, Nemo!” “My dad took on a shark?!”) It’s making me cry right now just thinking about it. I dunno, maybe it’s a father thing.

“Comedy sacrificed”? What cartoon sidekick in recent memory is more hilarious than Dori? Okay, maybe Kronk in The Emperor’s New Groove, but after that. I’m not sure I can think of anyone. Finding Nemo is a comic gem.

Are Pixar’s recent films perfect? The Incredibles comes close to perfection, yes, though it’s a work in a well-trodden genre, or rather a number of well-trodden genres. Its subversiveness and daring lies in its thematic territory — the cult of entitlement, marital friction, and, as in Finding Nemo, masculinity in crisis — rather than its subject matter.

Ratatouille and especially WALL-E, on the other hand, represent entirely new kinds of family/animated films. No Hollywood film this year seems to me a more hopeful harbinger than WALL-E. If films like this are possible and viable, all kinds of doors are open. I enjoy the likes of Kung Fu Panda and Horton Hears a Who as much as anyone. But nothing is more exciting to me as a father and a film critic than to be able to bring my kids to a film like WALL-E. I want to live in a world in which artists strive to create family films as unique and peculiar as this one.

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Review: WALL•E (2008)

A | **** | +1| Kids & Up

Even Pixar has never attempted anything on a canvas of this scale. From Monsters, Inc.’s corporate culture to Finding Nemo’s submarine suburbia, previous Pixar films have never strayed too far from the rhythms of real life. … WALL‑E creates a world that, despite clear connections to contemporary culture, looks and feels nothing like life as we know it, with unprecedented dramatic and philosophical scope.

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