How's this for pressure? The combined worldwide grosses for Pixar Animation Studios' first four features -- the ''Toy Story'' films, ''A Bug's Life,'' and ''Monsters, Inc.'' -- total $1.73 billion. Now Pixar wants to do for exotic fish what it did for talking dolls, insects, and things that go bump in the night: Render them in arrestingly ultrarealistic computer-graphics style and put grown-up repartee in their mouths, thereby luring adult, teen, and kiddie audiences -- a feat for a G-rated film.
''[The pressure] is all I've ever known,'' says Andrew Stanton, who cowrote all the earlier movies, codirected ''A Bug's Life,'' and was an executive producer on ''Monsters, Inc.'' ''People say, 'How are you gonna feel if this doesn't do well? It's gonna take the studio down.' You know what? Every Pixar movie was going to take the studio down.''
Indeed, ''Toy Story 2'' was considered a disaster before Pixar founding father John Lasseter and crew radically reworked it, and ''Monsters, Inc.'' suffered scary plot snags. There weren't any tsunami-like crises on the $80 million-or-so ''Nemo,'' which follows a nervous clownfish (Albert Brooks) on a deep-sea trek to rescue his son after the kid is snared by scuba divers. But some negative remarks from Pixar staffers in Internet chat rooms last fall, in reaction to an early cut, fueled speculation that ''Nemo'' might be 20,000 leagues from Pixar's best work. Says Stanton: ''Our stuff never looks sexy on [rough-sketch] reels.... You look like an ugly duckling until it's all done.''
A ShoWest screening in March generated much more positive buzz, even as it put a happy face on Pixar CEO Steve Jobs' ongoing grudge match with distribution partner Disney. (Jobs wants a better deal than the current 50-50 profit split, and after Pixar's next two films, he's got the right to fish for a better pact elsewhere.) Meanwhile, Ellen DeGeneres hasn't seen more than snippets of her memory-impaired character, Dory, but she's confident Pixar won't bobble. ''I said yes without a script,'' she says. ''I saw an outline. But just on their reputation, I was hooked.''