Ten years ago today, a movie about a little orange clownfish and his worried dad's trans-Pacific journey to rescue him started playing in theaters.
It was Finding Nemo, and its arrival in the world was, by most accounts, glorious. It broke box-office records and won an Academy Award, and a decade after its release, Andrew Stanton's affectionate computer-animated film about dad-fish Marlin's ocean-wide search for Nemo is widely considered a modern classic. It holds a 99 percent "fresh" rating on movie-review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes after being re-released in 3D last year—a higher score than all the studio's other 12 films except for the perfect-scoring first and second Toy Story films. It taught a generation of now-young adults to chirp out "Just keep swimming!" when times get rough, and it has even inspired a sequel due in 2015.
But Finding Nemo wasn't unanimously recognized as one of the Pixar greats at first. Instead, some critics considered it a mild disappointment to the studio's sterling reputation—a condemnation that, 10 years and a few truly under-inspired films later, seems ironic in light of the critical reception of Pixar's and Disney-Pixar's more recent fare.
Even back in 2003, every new Pixar creation was already burdened with the task of measuring up to its predecessors (a tradition that lives on today, and, it could be argued, yields more and more unsatisfying results). After releasing Toy Story, the first-ever all-computer-animated movie, in 1995, the CGI-animation studio went on a sensational winning streak with the massive successes A Bug's Life, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and Monsters Inc.
So when Nemo's undersea adventure arrived in U.S. theaters on May 30, 2003, critics across America praised its magnificent visual elements, its touching story, and its punchy, memorable characters that were funny to both kiddie moviegoers and their parents. Like its forerunners, Finding Nemo was a delight for audiences and a new technological high-water mark for Pixar, the general chorus went.
But, make no mistake—it was no Monsters Inc. What? Please.
"Visual imagination and sophisticated wit raise Finding Nemo to a level just below the peaks of Pixar's Toy Story movies and Monsters Inc.," sniffed The New York Times, while USA Today's reviewer reasoned that while Nemo lacked the clever humor of Monsters Inc., "kids will identify with the spunky sea fish Nemo, and adults will related to Marlin, Nemo's devoted dad." The Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote that Nemo couldn't "muster the kind of emotional tug that appeals to all generations and made several of the earlier Pixar films such instant classics," and one reviewer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette even docked points for its lack of the "defining musical moment we usually get from Pixar (was Randy Newman busy or what?)." NPR found Nemo to be initially cloying, but allowed that its faults were forgivable because there was "enough imagination left in the Pixar formula."
And according to The Gettysburg Times, Finding Nemo wasn't as wondrous or resonant as Monsters Inc., or as "wildly imaginative." Still, though, "slightly subpar Pixar beats most family entertainment hands down."
Yes, that's right: Ten years ago, Finding Nemo was the subpar Pixar movie.
Of course, many viewers and critics still don't place Finding Nemo among Pixar's best offerings. The Atlantic's own Christopher Orr, in his self-described "moderately heretical view," considers Nemo to be a lesser Pixar hit. Still, though—after watching the studio release far-less-beloved fare like last year's divisive Brave and 2011's disastrous Cars 2, it's easy to wonder whether critics and audiences didn't realize just how insanely good things were at the time.
It's hard to say whether that's how Finding Nemo earned its modern-classic status. Perhaps it did become easier to appreciate the "good old days" of one-after-another Pixar hits once the studio's historic streak began to fizzle. Or maybe Marlin, Dory, and Nemo just really did grow on audiences and critics over time.
But there's reason to believe the recent decline of Pixar has had something to do with it. By the time the 2010s arrived, critics had seemingly re-calibrated the standards by which they judged the films emerging from what was now called Disney-Pixar. Suddenly, Finding Nemo was part of the pantheon of Pixar's golden-age greatest, and critics began dismissing the studio's later, great-but-not-jaw-dropping films by pooh-poohing, Sure, solid effort, but it's no Finding Nemo.
For instance: The most recent Disney-Pixar offering—last year's Brave, the story of a feisty Scottish princess on a quest to save her mother from a spell that turned her into a bear—has a respectable 78 percent "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and it won the Best Animated Film award at the Oscars in February. But upon its release last summer, some critics waxed nostalgic for the days of dependably mind-blowing Pixar magic like—surprise!—Finding Nemo.
"It's not brilliant like Ratatouille or Finding Nemo, but it's not a total dud, either, like Cars 2," wrote NY1 News. "True, it's not a masterpiece on the order of Ratatouille or Finding Nemo," wrote a Slate reviewer, who added, "Brave is minor Pixar, like Cars (the first one) or Monsters Inc." Roger Ebert thought Brave lacked the thematic imagination of Pixar's earlier "brightly original films [like] Toy Story, Finding Nemo, WALL-E and Up," while New York Magazine called it "dully conventional" compared to Finding Nemo and The Incredibles.
Even NPR had evolved with regard to Finding Nemo by the time Brave was released, writing that certain aspects of Brave were "woefully conventional by Pixar standards," especially when compared to "modern classics like [Toy Story,] Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, WALL-E, Ratatouille and [the] two Toy Story sequels that took on improbable depth and complexity."
So is penitence in order from those critics who initially shrugged at Finding Nemo? Maybe not, but they illustrate an important lesson: Embrace great creative works when they appear—and, maybe more importantly, appreciate great creative dynasties while they last. Perhaps The Chicago Tribune's Mark Caro had it right back in 2003, when he reviewed Finding Nemo and warned against judging it too severely against the rest of the Pixar canon. All of Pixar's computer-animated features, Caro wrote, were high-quality—"and I'd guess that each one, with the possible exception of A Bug's Life, will be viewed decades later the way we now revere the classic Disney pictures."
"Classic film eras tend to get recognized in retrospect while we take for granted timeless works passing before our eyes," Caro wrote. "So let's pause to appreciate what's been going on at Pixar Animation Studios."