How far will a father swim to find his missing son?

That's the question that drives Finding Nemo, the new feast of innovative animation from Pixar Studios. But viewers will walk away asking another question: Are the folks at Pixar the most creative filmmakers for both adults and children working today?

Film Forum will feature an in-depth review of the film next week and link to reviews from several religious press film critics. For now, let me assure you that I think Finding Nemo is not just the best family film of the year so far, but it is one of the most astonishing achievements in animation ever made. Visually, it sets a new standard, and at this point, no other studio can match it. In a season of highly hyped and much anticipated sequels, both good (X2) and disappointing (Matrix Reloaded), Nemo packs so much action, so much awe-inspiring visual splendor, and so many big laughs into its hour-and-a-half span, that you'll probably want to get back in line and see it again the next day.

The distinct talent of Pixar's artists is that while they achieve remarkable realism in some aspects of their design, realism is not their highest priority. They instead focus on making every frame of their film such an exquisite work of art that any particular cel would be suitable for framing. And once again, they've found perfect voice matches for their characters, especially in the selection of Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres.

If writer/director Andrew Stanton can be faulted at all, it is for packing too many adrenalin rushes into the film. The crisis-every-minute narrative hurts the pacing so much that the big finale feels like just another big obstacle to overcome. You'll find yourself reaching for the remote control so you can slow things down and drift through these gorgeous underwater environments.

So buckle up. The storytellers also take on heavier issues than they have in their previous releases. Nemo is a surprisingly emotional film. It may prod a lump into the throats of the even the most stubborn viewers. The timing of the film's arrival is perfect—when Father's Day comes around, a second viewing will be the ideal family outing.

Parents, please note: While this is a movie for all-ages, there are some surprisingly scary moments as the little heroes bump into some particularly monstrous sea beasties.

Next week, Film Forum will focus on the story and its admirable themes in addition to the responses of other religious press critics. In the meantime, check out the responses of mainstream film critics.

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Religious press critics give Bruce Almighty carefully qualified praise

If you've seem Jim Carrey in the commercials for Bruce Almighty, you know that he plays a character who makes some self-centered choices when granted the mantle of omnipotence. In fact, due to the highly publicized, crass antics of this meddling man-deity, many Christian viewers have probably prayed for a box office disaster.

But there's more to the movie than a madman with a "god complex."

In fact, Bruce Almighty was directed by Tom Shadyac, a professing Christian who brought us Patch Adams and Dragonfly. The film focuses on how Bruce Nolan, a shallow and selfish man, learns to get past his adolescent desires and become more godly. God (played with dignity and authority by Morgan Freeman) is revealed as a deity who knows full well that giving temporary control to Bruce will be enough to humble and change him. Thus, several Christian film critics are urging viewers not to judge Shadyac's new comedy too hastily.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls Bruce "a wildly funny film … the funniest film of the year thus far."

Elliott offers reassurance to suspicious moviegoers: "Bruce Almighty is very respectful of God and the relationship between God and man. Many Christians will opt not to see this film because of [objectionable] elements and that is certainly understandable. But it is a pity because the spiritual messages being delivered by the film are ones which Christians will especially recognize and support."

Steven Greydanus (Decent Films) also gives the film a pass, but begrudges it a few missteps. "It takes seriously the idea of surrendering to God's will. It depicts prayer as commendable, while debunking self-centered prayers. It also critiques the sort of passive fatalism that sits around blaming God rather than taking action to change things. Yet the movie goes to the opposite extreme from passive fatalism by suggesting that we need to look to ourselves and not to God. Bruce Almighty argues that we can't be God, but it doesn't seem to understand how we need God."

He adds: "In addition to its theological faults, Bruce Almighty isn't very funny or creative."

Jamey Bennett (Razormouth) is surprised by the theological content of the film. "In a culture inundated by MTV, SpongeBob Squarepants, and Frappuccinos, Bruce Almighty is the closest thing to a systematic theology that most will ever lay eyes upon. Hopefully, the bits of truth in this irreverent comedy will not go unnoticed by moviegoers, and hopefully the Church will not forget to have better answers for the fewquestions that this movie has raised."

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Anna Waterhouse reviewed Bruce for Christianity Today. "The film is a primer on God's existence and his active presence in our lives," Waterhouse wrote. "Before it's done, Bruce discovers that God is not only loving—he's as close as our breath, and we are his feet, hands, and heart."

Watching the film with younger viewers in mind, Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) observes that the film seems spiritually "ambiguous." "Such ambiguity isn't necessarily a reason to avoid watching Bruce Almighty with teens. On the contrary, it could stimulate great discussion. What will deter many families from seeing this movie are its coarse jokes, foul language, and sexual situations. Why did the filmmakers feel the need to go there? That material undermines what is otherwise a very funny, sweet, and profound comedy that awakens viewers to the fundamental existence of God and our need to serve one another."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Carrey is the weak link in an otherwise entertaining film. He is so concerned with doing his patented rubber-faced routine—a shtick that is quickly growing stale—that he never fully surrenders to the role."

But is the film too irreverent? DiCerto decides, "Beneath its irreverent facade the film addresses faith issues with an unfeigned sincerity and seriousness. That's rare in an industry which, at best, treats expressions of faith as window dressing."

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) argues that Carrey is "in fine form", and assures readers that "The movie will elicit some genuine laughs, even as it plays some sentimental notes. Some viewers may find the premise sacrilegious, but those who don't will think a little and laugh a lot."

Bobby Kim (Relevant Magazine) also approves: "Although fronting as a classic Carrey funfest, Bruce Almighty's spiritual undertones are jarringly poignant and substantial.

Megan Basham (Christian Spotlight) writes, "Despite the precarious undertaking of trying to paint a picture of God using limited human minds and limited human actors, the team behind this film manages to capture some of the Lord's compelling attributes as revealed through Scripture." But then she expresses dismay at some of the crass comedy in the film, and says she is not satisfied with the justifications provided by the director in her interview with him.

But she concludes, "Like Paul with the Greeks, movies concerning God and his role in our lives give Christ's followers an opportunity to address the world on its own terms and say, 'You know that God that remains unnamed in this film? Well, I do know his name. It's Jesus, and I'd like to tell you about him.'"

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David Bruce, (Hollywood Jesus) interviewed Shadyac. He asks the director how a professing Christian could make a movie about a guy who lives with his girlfriend. Shadyac replies, "If people will not go to see Bruce Almighty, then (they) shouldn't pick up Confessions by Saint Augustine. Because he lived a very worldly life—with all the trappings of the world. And look a St. Paul. Don't read St. Paul, please. He killed Christians. He didn't just sleep with someone before marriage. He killed Christians. Don't look at St. Paul. We could go down the list—of everyone (in the Bible) that these families admire, and yet these people will hold Hollywood to a different standard."

Movieguide's critic, however, says Christians should not see Almighty because of its "unscrubbed" and objectionable content. But he argues that there is just enough theological emphasis that "a select few of the lost and frustrated masses who are desperately searching to know the love of the One True God … may find something to set them on a better, more spiritually correct path."

Dick Staub's Culture Watch reports, "The crudities and juvenile humor in the film distract from the essential goodness of it's messages: of God's love, the importance of gratitude, the need to find out who God has uniquely created you to be, and to 'be a miracle' by doing your part."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) thinks the film is worthwhile despite is objectionable aspects: "Although you may not approve of all the questionable elements that are in this movie or support the way the story is told, this movie does have the potential to reach people who would never step inside a church, listen to Christian radio or watch Christian television. It will leave you thinking about the spiritual elements long after you've left the theater."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says, "Even devout moviegoers should acknowledge the good intentions of this clever comedy. Compared to the solemn silliness and pagan pomposity of the over-praised The Matrix Reloaded, Carrey's Bruce looks like a work of unexpected theological integrity."

Most mainstream critics admit that there are some hilarious sequences, but they are nevertheless somewhat disappointed by the comedy. You can scan their reviews here.

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Critics call The In-Laws an outlaw, guilty of crimes against a comedy classic

Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks take the places of Peter Falk and Alan Arkin as the leads in the new version of a popular 1979 comedy The In-Laws. Directed by Andrew Fleming (Dick), and written by Nat Mauldin (Doctor Doolittle) and Ed Solomon (Men in Black, Levity), the film focuses on a marriage that greatly upsets the neurotic father of the bride (Brooks) when he discovers that the groom's father (Douglas) is engaged in covert operations for the CIA. The more he gets entangled in the wacky exploits of his future son-in-law's spy dad, the more his fears prove justified.

The original In-Laws is highly regarded, and many critics worried that a remake could only fall short. According to most religious press critics, it has done just that.

Rich Kennedy (The Film Forum) talks about the excellence of the original, and concludes, "Make no mistake, [this version] does not deserve the title. Imagine The Godfather remade with Dom Deluise as The Don and Andy Griffith as Barzini and you have the idea of the nature of this sad film."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) also prefers the original: "With a less lavish budget, less splashy ambitions and more attention to character-driven comedy, the film might have connected with audiences in the more memorable manner of the original."

But Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) cuts The In-Laws stars some slack. "Douglas and Brooks may not reach the same level of inspired lunacy as the original actors, but they do have their own high moments in this hit-and-miss attempt." The performances, however, did not save the film for him. "As a whole, the film never seems to gel beyond a mildly entertaining fish-out-of-water tale."

Bruce Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "Not only is this comedy not very funny, but the lazy scripting and severely strained logic of several key scenes late in the film torpedo what little patience the audience has left. Toss in crude sexual references and I was ready to flee the theater."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says the movie "is missing two key ingredients that made the original hilarious: Falk and Arkin. Very little of the screwball narrative holds together and the most treacherous obstacle the unlikely duo must navigate is the script's minefield of clichés, flat jokes, and obligatory epiphanies."

Movieguide's critic found much of the movie funny. "The In-Laws has a lot of great laughs, and Albert Brooks truly steals the show. There is a lot of silliness and hokiness, but there is also a lot of physical humor and great stunts." The only things bothering the reviewer are "some homosexual humor and foul language."

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Mainstream critics are generally unimpressed. You can scan their reviews here.

Daddy Day Care may be clean, but is it funny?

Last week, religious press film critics praised Eddie Murphy's new film as the cleanest and most moral movie of his career in comedy. But according to J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth), "clean" does not necessarily mean "good."

Parks writes, "The film's first half hour … is a nightmare. Not only do the jokes fall with a resounding thud, but the characters and situations are hopelessly generic and predictable. Once the movie actually focuses on the day care center, I found myself entertained. But just when I thought Daddy Day Care might transcend its premise, the third act kicks in. In fact, the final half hour is just as bad as the first half hour." He goes into detail about the film's predictable cop-outs and clichés, and how a potentially funny circumstance chooses the easy way out.

Matrix Reloaded continues to crash with Christian critics

Travis Carl (Christian Spotlight) joins the host of religious press critics Film Forum quoted last week who found the second Matrix film flashy but forgettable.

Carl writes, "For those who enjoyed the Christian symbolism of the first film, prepare to be disappointed. Though the spiritual parallels (such as free will versus predestination and the way materialism blinds us to reality) are revisited, this Messiah bears no resemblance to our own. He accomplishes all of his missions through brute force and seems swayed by any mystical wind blowing his way."

The Dancer Upstairs is suspenseful and timely

Film Forum featured some religious press responses to John Malkovich's debut film The Dancer Upstairsa few weeks back. This week, J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) posted a new review of the film, praising everything but the love story at its center, which he calls merely "a plot device."

But otherwise, he's impressed. "Javier Bardem's strong performance carries the film. The political intrigue is genuinely suspenseful. And though the movie was in production for six years, it feels particularly timely. Rural revolutionary movement starts terrorizing the country with bombs and assassinations, government reacts by squelching civil liberties and using the terror as a pretext to advance its own agenda. Not to compare our current American situation with Peru's nightmare years of the Shining Path, but there are some similarities. For those moviegoers not afraid of the political, The Dancer Upstairs provides many pleasures. Just don't expect it to have much of a heart."

Next week: Christian film critics plunge into Finding Nemo and take on The Italian Job.