With “Finding Nemo: The Big Blue … and Beyond,” Walt Disney World has enhanced and condensed its beloved clownfish tale with a re-imagined stage musical that debuts to the public at Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park Monday.
Fear not. Beloved characters and bits from “Finding Nemo: The Musical,” which closed more than two years ago, are there, including overprotective Marlin, distracted Dory, Bruce the sly shark and the choreographed moonfish. Appearances by those and others were applauded knowingly during a cast-member preview Friday night.
Musically, audience members continue to be encouraged to just keep swimming, to go with the flow and to use the survival tactic of togetherness.
And as in the past, costumed performers operate large puppets while acting out the scenes inspired by the 2003 Disney-Pixar film “Finding Nemo.” The show’s music was composed by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, Oscar winners for “Let It Go” from “Frozen” and “Remember Me” from “Coco.”
The “Nemo” story points are juggled around from the original version as the journey of Nemo is now told in flashback format. The length of “Big Blue” is 25 minutes, down from the 40-minute staging of the original.
“I feel like you get so much more, right? It’s packed, and it’s super-energetic. And it just transitions so easily from moment to moment,” art director Matt Fiuza said after Friday’s performance. “And I also feel like you get the secondary story of how Nemo has impacted his friends, which you didn’t get in the first one. So you kind of get a secondary story — beyond.”
Some moments are compacted. The early fret level of Marlin feels lower, and it dwells on Nemo’s deceased mother less. The escape scene is tighter. But there’s still drama inside the dentist’s aquarium and out in the sea with big-puppet encounters with Crush the turtle and Bruce, who tries to persuade, through a production number, that fish are friends, not food.
Some of that drama is helped via new visuals, both virtual and practical, and moody lighting. The backdrop morphs into multiple environments including the ocean floor, the skyline of Sydney, a swirling pattern behind Crush and a menacing appearance of young Darla. It also becomes a soothing, wave-patterned blue look. Projections extend the scenes beyond the edge of the stage.
The onstage action and the on-screen effects play together. A diving mask flops onto the surface in real life, then digital bubbles ripple from that area.
“Because of the way the 3-D model was built of this set, there was a lot of in-the-field editing,” Fiuza said. “They could tweak in the virtual world and in the real world at the same time while we were programming.”
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The more compact show will serve Animal Kingdom visitors well, he said.
“I think some of the guests have so much to do in their day that making it 25 minutes makes it much easier to be a part of your day,” Fiuza said.
“There are moments that are heartfelt and that are eased in and that feel like there’s the appropriate time in there,” he said. “So it’s not rushed, but it’s energetic.”
Among the absentees in the new show: Nigel the pelican, dueling swordfish and the penguins who remember they can’t fly. A puppet for Squirt, son of Crush, has been incorporated.
The original show, which opened in the park in 2007, did not come back after the resort’s pandemic shutdown. Eventually, Disney said the musical had been canceled, but later decided to bring back a re-imagined version. It’s been 27 months since Nemo and friends have been seen on the Theater in the Wild stage. The new show’s cast is a mix of returning actors and new performers.
“It’s emotional,” Fiuza said. “I saw backstage, there’s a lot of tears of joy because they’re back here with the audience, and they’re feeling the excitement. So I can only see it building back up.”
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