Finding Nemo, the latest Disney-Pixar collaboration, tells the tale of a neurotic single father's quest to track down his only child, after the latter is carried away by a couple of strangers. Rest easier: the main characters are all fish, and the bulk of the action takes place on, under or around water. The father, Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), is a clownfish who simply isn't funny, and the Great Barrier Reef setting allows for the presence of pelicans called Nigel and Gerald, and reforming sharks known as Bruce. The textures (ranging from something as banal as water in a plastic bag to the vast, terrifying shadow creeping slowly up on Marlin and his female guide Dory) are, as you'd expect from the people behind Toy Story, lovingly rendered, and the ambient ocean sounds soothing beyond belief. The script achieves the usual blend of thrills and fish poo gags for the kids, while delivering a parable of modern parenting for their guardians. "I promised I'd never let anything happen to him," mourns Marlin at one point, prompting the generally scatterbrained Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) into a rare moment of clarity: "That's a funny thing to promise."
Perhaps it's the control freakery of the creatives who make them, but so many films about children are about holding on - one might even argue Toy Story is about this very need - but here's one that proposes letting go as an alternative: its parenting paradigm is an eminently laidback turtle called Crush (voiced by the film's director Andrew Stanton) who's only too happy to send his kids swimming and spinning away in order to let them grow, safe in the knowledge they will more than likely paddle straight back to him. This is a much warmer and funnier film than Pixar's previous effort Monsters, Inc., with its cuddly corporate conveyor belt and arbeit macht frei moralising. For all that, and the return to the pastel seascapes of The Little Mermaid, it's a movie with a sincere understanding of the real scary monsters - never mind your jellyfish and toothsome sharks - haunting middle America at the moment: abandonment and loss. The result is a film that knows exactly what it is to be a small fish at the very bottom of a very big pond; regrettable Robbie Williams cover of "Beyond the Sea" aside, it also has the perfect ending.
Finding Nemo is available on DVD through Walt Disney Studios; a sequel, Finding Dory, opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.