There's a telling gag buried at the bottom of the closing credits of Pixar Animation Studios' deep-sea fable ''Finding Nemo.'' A tiny green fish with bugged-out eyes, whom we've seen before as the terrified guest of vegetarian sharks, wriggles onto the screen. Behind him, an angler fish bristling with teeth -- the same brute who nearly eats the story's heroes, anxious single-dad clown fish Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) and memory-impaired blue tang Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) -- glides up and prepares to chomp. But suddenly the little guy opens impossibly wide jaws and KARRUMP -- he swallows the angler whole.
The movie's last laugh couldn't be more appropriate, since Pixar has now officially devoured what were supposed to be more voracious competitors in the summer box office race. So much for forecasts that ''The Matrix Reloaded'' would prove the season's hottest piece of software. Or that ''The Hulk'' would fillet ''Nemo'' once it opened. Instead, over the Fourth of July weekend, ''Nemo'' passed ''Reloaded'' to become 2003's top grosser at $275 million, and also passed DreamWorks' ''Shrek'' to become the highest-grossing computer-animated movie ever. Some box office analysts think ''Nemo'' even has a shot at outswimming Disney's 1994 hand-drawn opus ''The Lion King,'' the all-time 'toon champ, which commanded an initial domestic gross of $313 million (upped to $329 million with a recent IMAX reissue).
More important for Pixar's and Disney's pride, the rapturously reviewed ''Nemo'' could become the first cartoon feature since 1991's ''Beauty and the Beast'' to capture a Best Picture Academy Award nomination. (Best Animated Feature is, at this point, a done deal.) Since Pixar's five movies -- the two ''Toy Story'' films, ''A Bug's Life,'' ''Monsters, Inc.,'' and ''Nemo'' -- have now grossed a combined $1.1 billion at North American theaters, betting against them in anything, including an awards derby, would be a fool's game.
At a time when so many mainstream Hollywood movies are disappointing audiences and critics, how does Pixar do it?
The company's exceptionally bright, happy workforce of 700 or so, headquartered far from Los Angeles in an atrium-bisected building a few miles east of San Francisco's Bay Bridge, exudes a certain men-in-black, true-believer aura. They're employee-apostles. When outsiders visit, the required name tag carries the warning ''A stranger from the outside!'' quoting the little tri-eyed aliens from ''Toy Story.'' Clearly, Pixar doesn't want anybody spilling beans about upcoming movies until it's ready to promote them with its distribution partner, the Walt Disney Co.
But Pixar president Edwin Catmull isn't too worried about giving away more general creative secrets, since in his experience Hollywood has proved unable to clone Pixar's unique culture. Once a new movie hits theaters after a four-year gestation-to-graduation cycle, the staff tends to codify the life lessons involved as part of producing the inevitable DVD. Here's what they say they learned refining ''Nemo'':
CREATING BEATS ADAPTING. Pixar has doggedly stuck to crafting its own stories and characters, eschewing retellings of fairy tales or best-selling books. ''Original stories are the hardest things to do,'' says ''Nemo'' director Andrew Stanton, who cowrote the script with Pixar story man Bob Peterson and Disney freelancer David Reynolds. (Stanton also cowrote Pixar's previous four movies.) ''At least, my writer's pride would like to think that. But they're more satisfying when you're done.'' Management backed up that sentiment by allowing ''Nemo'''s narrative to grow and morph repeatedly all through production -- and Stanton had been nursing the basic ideas since the early '90s.
LET THE MILIEU OBSESS YOU. Director John Lasseter, who spearheaded Pixar's first three features and exec-produced ''Monsters, Inc.'' and ''Nemo,'' pushes the staff hard to do research, research, research. He urged the ''Nemo'' principals to become certified scuba divers, as he is, the better to inform their approach. ''Every character's personality in 'Nemo' is based on a real sea creature,'' says Lasseter. ''Dory is based on certain types of fish that really don't have short-term memories. They live literally for the moment, for what's in front of them.'' (DeGeneres' initial response to that fact was ''What do they do, take a test?'') And Stanton based ''Nemo'''s fishnet great-escape finale on a tiny newspaper article about a trawler boat that capsized off Oslo when all the fish swam downward.