Boasting one of the decade’s best film titles, this Danish animated feature finds young hero Fly (Jeff Pace) eager to go fishing by the sea when unfortunately his parents take off for the day, leaving him housebound alongside kid sister Stella (Michele Westerson) and their chubby, science geek cousin Chuck (]Aaron Paul - later one of the scumbags in The Last House on the Left (2009) - yikes!). The kids sneak away to the seashore where they stumble upon the secret laboratory of Professor MacKrill (Monty Python’s Terry Jones) who has come up with a crackpot idea to help mankind survive under the sea with the aid of his amazing potion. After Stella inadvertently ingests the potion and transforms into a starfish, Fly and Chuck plunge into the ocean to rescue her, reborn as a fly-fish and jellyfish respectively. If they don’t ingest the antidote within forty-eight hours they will be fish forever, but the potion falls into the hands of an evil fish called Joe (Alan Rickman), who aspires to rule over an ocean-spanning civilisation of intelligent fish.
When released at cinemas Help! I’m a Fish was somewhat swept aside by a tidal wave of increasingly grandiose computer animated features, but regular screenings on television and home video led a handful of kids and cartoon buffs to warm to its idiosyncratic charms. Trailers may have sold this like Saturday Morning cartoon fodder, but the animation is quite accomplished with artfully composed shots, tight editing and visual flourishes that meld traditional cel painting with CG. An opening kaleidoscope of marine life, scored by some aurally-pleasing Euro-pop, is especially lovely and once Joe sets up his own crypto-fascist state under the sea, co-directors Stefan Fjeldmark - who later made the inferior Asterix and the Vikings (2006) - and Michael Hegner show some demented flair. Fish ride around inside a giant whale bus; form skyscrapers with neon signs; and stage mass rallies that look like a surreal fusion between an aquatic Leni Riefenstahl and those industrial themed Madonna videos that David Fincher cranked out in the early Nineties.
Though the script is not as tight as say, Finding Nemo (2003), some interesting ideas have been woven into the story including allusions to the rise of fascism and a clever discussion on whether it is logic or wit that elevates mankind from marine life. Whereas Chuck adheres to the former, Fly relies too much on his own gumption and grows prone to impulsive actions. Despite the promising setup, things gradually devolve into a familiar series of chases and escapes, but remain consistently engaging. Characters are cute without being cloying and rather than a cheap Disney knockoff, the film bears some of the inventiveness of classic European children’s literature, with Fly’s final face-off against Joe proving surprisingly clever. Terry Jones injects a little Pythonesque lunacy into his mad scientist while Alan Rickman is of course an old hand at silky-smooth villainy. Plus you get to hear him sing (“One potion, one ocean, one ruler for all”)!