“You mean the swirling vortex of terror?”
There’s a lot happening in Finding Nemo, a fact that hindered my appreciation for it back in 2003. At its core is a story about an over-protective clownfish father and his adventurous boy yearning to break free of the constant fear that’s ruled their lives for too long. But this logline barely scratches the surface after introducing a blue tang in the Pacific without a short-term memory and an angelfish in captivity searching for freedom. When the boy (Alexander Gould‘s Nemo) is taken by an Australian dentist deep-sea diving off the shore of Sydney, the story begins to shift back and forth between aquarium and ocean. And while I originally thought the subplots took away from the central conceit, I now see they are the central conceit.
Despite the title, Andrew Stanton‘s Oscar-winning film isn’t about Marlin (Albert Brooks) finding his son. It’s about every character finding the courage to live their lives as the gift each truly is. The tragic prologue cultivating Marlin and Nemo’s fear deals with wife/mother Coral’s (Elizabeth Perkins) demise when the future seemed brightest. Desperate to never lose the sole survivor of that attack, Marlin buckles down and for all intents and purposes renders the pair hermits. He’d never in a million years swim into the open sea because of the dangers lurking inside its darkness. And Nemo would never be allowed to do so either. Only when fate intervenes to render the choice between never seeing his son again or die trying does Marlin finally remember what it means to live.
But he isn’t alone in this respect. Nemo has a bad fin—stunted when his egg cracked during the aforementioned assault—and must learn to not use it as a crutch. Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) appears insane on the surface because she can barely remember what she was doing ten seconds before the present and never made a friend as a result. Everyone’s overcoming an obstacle they believed was an intrinsic defect forcing them to be less than they would if they were “normal”. Even the sharks (Barry Humphries‘ Bruce, Eric Bana‘s Anchor, and Bruce Spence‘s Chum) are attempting to be better than their nature, rewiring their inclination to eat fish into befriending them instead. Finding Nemo is therefore a battle cry screaming, “Be true to your best self.”
Stanton, Bob Peterson, and David Reynolds have infused the journey with myriad examples of the opposite too along with an intense feeling of sorrow in the aftermath so their characters can evolve. Sometimes things get a bit on-the-nose as far as “letting go,” but for a children’s film that type of overt lesson is the goal. Someone like Gill (Willem Dafoe), the aforementioned angelfish from the sea caught by the dentist (Bill Hunter) and imprisoned on his shelf, needs to work through his longing to return home by first using Nemo for personal gain. Whereas a lesser film would render him as an alternative villain of sorts, however, this one provides him authentic remorse the instant suffering is endured. He ultimately becomes a hero, friend, and guardian angel.
The same happens to Marlin, his impatience and hardheadedness often coming at odds with Dory. This frustration proves his worst attribute, one that only love and guilt can melt away upon deciding to throw caution to the wind for once by venturing into the unknown’s great expanse. People talk about DeGeneres’ perfection as Dory, but I’d argue Albert Brooks is even more impeccable as Marlin. The worry, underlying passive aggression, and penchant to fly off the handle utilized in his iconic performance during Broadcast News shines here again. He comes across as put-upon, but really is just plain scared. His defense from that fear is to talk and yell, a state of fluster always better than calm’s quiet letting his mind conjure the potential horrors coming his way.
These four leads—Marlin, Dory, Nemo, and Gill—are the story’s backbone with the former pair learning to escape self-imposed shells while the latter reclaim their fighting spirit to survive. Those surrounding them are mostly comic relief, but none are throwaways. Stanton’s own sea turtle Crush is a crucial mirror for Marlin; the dentist aquarium gang separate embodiments of all the emotional and psychological hang-ups Nemo contends with; and the sharks a welcome example of our capacity to change. The filmmakers have fun with ocean puns and animal traits (seagulls barking “MINE!”), infuse some horror leitmotifs (The Shining with Bruce and Psycho with the dreaded Darla), and double-down on the duality of nature with pelican Nigel (Geoffrey Rush) hoping to help despite the circle of life.
They come together flawlessly despite my reservations watching thirteen years ago. The transitions from ocean to fish tank arrive with plot relevance and emotional resonance while Nemo and Marlin’s journeys run parallel but never become redundant. Stanton and company has woven multiple themes/messages together; each as important as the next in supplying their broken characters a road to repair. They differentiate between heroism and cowardice despite both actions steeped in protective intent while also teaching what it is to trust someone knowing they won’t always be correct. This is Finding Nemo‘s biggest takeaway: its ability to depict failure as a way of life. Tragedy strikes, our paths become blocked, and we must figure out how to adapt and prevail. We cannot learn if we never make a mistake.