Fish story: Nemo wows the small fry

David Letterman would love to introduce two box office champions: "Neo, Nemo... Nemo, Neo."

Somewhere between sentimental scenes at the beginning and end, amid enough melodramatic cliffhangers for a whole season of 24, lies the funniest fish movie since Wanda. Coming from the Disney/Pixar combo responsible for Monsters, Inc. and the Toy Storys, Finding Nemo is a worthy addition to their body of work.

The opening has echoes of Bambi and The Lion King as the clownfish Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) loses his wife and 399 of their eggs to a predator. Marlin vows that nothing bad will ever happen to the sole remaining egg, named Nemo and born with a gimpy fin.

Cut to Nemo's (Alexander Gould) first day of school (some puns are unavoidable) when the lad rebels against his dad's over-protectiveness and gets caught and carried off by a human diver.

From then on, the film alternates between Nemo's new home, an aquarium in a Sydney dentist's office, and his father's odyssey in search of him. Marlin, who seems determined to prove "Clownfish are no funnier than any other fish," is befriended by Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a bluefish who suffers from short-term memory loss. (Imagine Memento with an all-fish cast.) As voiced by DeGeneres, Dory is definitely funnier than any other fish– except perhaps Marlin, once Brooks hits his strident stride.

While Marlin and Dory face sharks, jellyfish, a whale, and a "swirling vortex of terror," Nemo is initiated into the fellowship of aquarium fish, led by escape-driven Gill (Willem Dafoe). Their outside ally is a pelican named Nigel (Geoffrey Rush), who could actually pick them up in his beak and carry them out to sea, but then there wouldn't be a movie.

It's especially urgent for Nemo to escape because the dentist has earmarked him as a birthday gift for his eight-year-old, fish-killing niece.

The feature is preceded by a Pixar short-short from 1989, Knick Knack, an amusing trifle about a flirtation between souvenir gadgets, specifically the snowman in an Alaskan snow globe and the bathing beauty on a Miami ashtray.

At the end of the movie, Robbie Williams sings a cover of "Beyond the Sea" to Bobby Darin's arrangement while creatures swim around the credits, sometimes doing comic bits. There's not quite enough to hold your attention, but you'll be sorry if it wanders and you miss the final gag.

Young viewers may not get the jokes about the Fishaholics Anonymous meeting of sharks who are trying to quit their habit. ("Fish are friends, not food.") They'll prefer Crush (director Andrew Stanton), the surfer dude sea turtle.

Whether you get all the jokes or not, young readers, Finding Nemo is the perfect movie to take your dads to for Fathers' Day.