It's often said that there are only two basic plots in the whole of cinema: Either a stranger comes to town, or the hero takes off on a journey.
Pixar's new CGI-fest Finding Nemo throws both scenarios at us in the first reel. First, the idyllic undersea world of clownfish couple Marlin (a Woody Allen-esque Albert Brooks) and Coral is obliterated by a hungry barracuda who swallows mum and 399 of her 400-strong brood. Only one hatchling survives; little Nemo, born with a deformed fin and a thirst for adventure that drives his widowed dad mad with worry.
When Nemo is abducted by a diving dentist who wants to restock his surgery aquarium, it's up to dad to head off into the wild blue yonder to get him back. It's Marlin's first time beyond the coral reef, but he soon teams up with the irrepressible Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), who suffers Memento-style short-term memory loss but compensates with a flair for languages and an instinctive gift for getting ahead.
Their superbly realised oceanic quest includes an encounter with a bunch of surfing turtles ( "No hurling on the shell dude, just waxed it"), a spectacular synchronised swimming display from a shoal of sardines and an edgy encounter with three reformed sharks ("Fish are friends, not food"), generating a riot of rehab jokes. Meanwhile, a parallel plot shows us how little Nemo comes to grips with the slippery world of the fishtank escape committee, led by damaged veteran Gill (Willem Dafoe).
The BBC's The Blue Planet seems to have been a major influence on the animators' imaginations - Finding Nemo builds upon much of the dreamy yet savage film imagery from David Attenborough's underwater wildlife series.
There's also plenty of movie-buff in-jokery, both Pixar-specific (the dentist's surgery boasts a Buzz Lightyear toy) and more universal. The marauding seagulls have the faces of Aardman Animation's villainous penguin from The Wrong Trousers and the dentist lives in Wallaby Street, Sydney, a close match for Wallace and Gromit's address back in Blighty. Pet-murdering moppet Darla enters to the strains of Bernard Herrmann's score for Psycho and when recovering fish-addict Bruce the shark (Barry Humphries) falls off the wagon, he bursts through a splintering door like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
As in all Disney quest movies, everything turns out right in the end - but only after plenty of trauma as well as humour. Basic to the movie's message is the need to take risks in life, and over-protective father Marlin has to learn to let go in more ways than one before he can win through to happiness. It may be marketed as a film for kids, but in a society where parenthood increasingly tips over into paranoia and neurosis, perhaps Finding Nemo has more lessons to teach their minders.
:: Clare O'Brien