Nemo director, Stanton, living up to Disney

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Editor's Note: This story originally ran on June 13, 2003.

Hey, Bambi, bounce out of the way - here swims a fish named Nemo.

Pixar Animation Studios, the makers of the huge hits Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Monsters, Inc., lands another big one with Finding Nemo. Not just another fish story, this beautifully told tale of a worried fish father in search of his missing offspring runs from emotional depths to high-flying fun.

A comic adventure that children and people of any age can enjoy, Finding Nemo earned an estimated $144 million in its first 10 days of release. Nonetheless, Nemo writer-director Andrew Stanton doesn’t assume the studio’s films will be hits.

“We’ve been on pins and needles on all of them,” he said from San Francisco, home of Pixar. “And we worked our tails off on all of them. I think that’ll always stay the case.”

Though Stanton has been deeply involved as screenwriter, executive producer and co-director for previous Pixar projects, he’s got even more riding on Finding Nemo. It’s his first credit as principal director. Stanton also wrote the original story, co-wrote the screenplay and provides the voice of Crush, a sea turtle.

“I didn’t want to go into that seat (as director) unless I had something I really, really wanted to do,” Stanton said. “It’s a little scary. That made me that much more serious as I waited for the movie to come out. I had less objectivity on this one, as to how it was gonna do, than I did on the other ones.”

Finding Nemo’s story about a clown fish obsessed with keeping his young son safe is closer to the director in another way, too.

“Nemo was written with my son in mind,” he said. “It’s autobiographical.”

Finding Nemo and Bambi - the 1942 Disney animated classic about a young deer - both begin with the death of parents. But Stanton and his Pixar collaborators quickly leap to fresh water.

The filmmakers, Stanton said, were hoping they wouldn’t have to kill Nemo’s mother off. Story requirements forced their hands, he said. The filmmakers thought the mama fish’s death-by-predator would help audiences sympathize with Nemo’s overprotective dad, whose ever-anxious voice comes from Albert Brooks.

“We were in safe territory if we dealt with it (the death of Nemo’s mother) as maturely and delicately as Bambi did,” Stanton said. “We also needed to set the rules up at the beginning, because we knew people would not assume that it was the real, predatory rules of the ocean. Even Lion King decided to go the circle-of-life route, but I was more intrigued with telling a story that plays by the rules of nature, what’s really out there.”

Like Disney animators of decades past, Pixar animators observed living creatures as part of their Nemo research. They installed a fish tank in the studio, stocking it with the fish species that populate the movie. Scuba diving in Hawaii gave the filmmakers a first-hand view of the film’s underwater environment. And observation of the movie’s voice talent - including Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Willem Dafoe, Allison Janney and 9-year-old Alexander Gould as Nemo - helped shape the expressions of computer-animated characters.

Life at the Pixar studios, Stanton said, is like film school without the teachers.

“It’s run by an artist. There are no middlemen, no suits. We’re not in Hollywood. It’s very un-Hollywood. That’s a direct reason why the movies can stay as good as they are.”

Stanton joined Pixar in 1990 as the studio’s second animator. In the 13 years since, Pixar has become the film industry’s major computer animation studio.

“Every one of these movies has gone beyond our expectations,” Stanton said. “It really is a dream come true, and it’s created a kind of studio that none of us thought could exist.”

Pixar people work hard and play hard, often at the same time. A Pixar feature takes three-to-four years to complete.

“It’s a marathon working here. We have a nine-to-five job, so it’s not that we work long hours, we just work really hard hours, like ER intensity hours. You’re spent at the end of the day.”

Though Stanton and his colleagues work in the medium of computer animation, their heads are not stuck in animation.

“We don’t necessarily think we’re making an animated movie,” he said. “As weird as that sounds, we feel like we’re making a great movie, and we don’t want to limit ourselves with just looking at animation. We spend most of our time talking about any movie. It could be The Godfather.”

Even so, classic Disney animation such as Snow White, Bambi and Pinocchio are a source of inspiration.

“We’re trying to make the same kind of movies that so inspired us growing up, and that we still watch, even after we’ve grown up. When you get that affected by a movie, you have this creative urge and obligation to want to do the same.”

While much is made of movie box office receipts, Nemo is more than a moneymaker. It has the dramatic weight and richness of humor seen in such Disney animated features as Bambi and Pinocchio.

“John Lasseter,” Stanton said, “who runs the studio here, quotes Walt Disney, saying, ‘For every laugh their should be a tear.’ There’s something cathartic when you can juxtapose the two. You laugh harder and you cry harder.”

Because of the big success of Pixar’s own films, Stanton is striving to live up to his newly spawned film legacy.

“Toy Story was where the magic really sparked,” he recalled. “You felt like you were part of something great. None of us had made a movie before, so there was this energy. You find yourself, on every movie after that, trying to re-create what that felt like, because that had so much to do with why the movies were good.”