WARNING: This review may contain spoilers!

Despite both of us having lots on our respective plates, Erin and I hunkered down last night to watch Finding Nemo, the highest grossing film of 2003 and the highest grossing animated film of all-time. We’d both sort of seen it before at the Lillys last Christmas—there were lots of Jonah interruptions at the time—but this was our first fully attentive run-through.

I am on record as really liking Pixar‘s work. I think Toy Story 1 & 2 are brilliant, and I think Monsters, Inc. is perhaps even better. (A Bug’s Life was good but not in the same league.)

Finding Nemo contains some wonderful animation and vocal work. It’s also quite funny. But it’s little more troubling thematically for several reasons. One because of a screenwriting choice and two because it veers to extremes in its message. A slight tweak here and a more balanced conclusion there would have helped this movie immensely.

The set-up: Nemo’s father Marlin becomes an overly protective parent who is scared of the world after the death of his wife and all but one of their fish eggs. Erin and I continue to debate whether or not it was necessary to portray this tragedy in the movie. Certainly it provides a crystal clear motive for Marlin’s behavior, but the death of a mom and all her embryonic off-spring but one is a tough psychlogical weight for kids—presumably the target audience of this G-rated fare—and frankly for some adults as well.

This movie carries a “heaviness,” as Erin puts it, which all the ensuing hijinks and humor don’t quite erase. Even toward the end when we face the prospect of Marlin utterly bereft of hope, love, and family it echoes the earlier tragedy and teleports us right back into the emotional darkness. I’m sure the question of showing the story of Coral’s death was debated within Pixar, but I’m not sure that they arrived at the right decision. It really does seem to me to cast a pall over the movie.

The other issue I have with the film is that Marlin is not wholly wrong about needing to take some precautions as we make our way through life. It seems to me that the story ultimately promotes a “life as fun adventure” ethic which is no more honest than Marlin’s original neurosis. Balance between the two extremes is obviously the answer, but that is not the conclusion of this film.

Nonetheless, the picture offers thematic lessons on self-sacrifice, obedience, freedom, courage, love, and more that make it a very worthwhile experience for most folks. Finding Nemo is neither perfect nor Pixar’s best (except financially), but—above caveats noted—it’s still very good, and highly recommended.