Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.
Maxine, my 11-year-old daughter, hates Finding Nemo. Hates it, and she’s never really given me a reason why. Frequently, when I watch something more attuned to kids, I invite my kids to watch with me, but I knew that it wouldn’t be worth asking this time. I don’t get her objection. This isn’t one I would rank among Pixar’s greatest achievements—it’s no Toy Story or The Incredibles, but it’s got all of the elements of really good family film. There’s humor, adventure, and a nice message at the end. Kids, right?
Anyway, my guess is that pretty much everyone reading this has seen Finding Nemo at least once, and anyone with kids between two and 18 has seen it a couple of dozen times (unless your kids hate it like mine does). We start with the classic Disney trope when we’re introduced to Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Coral (Elizabeth Perkins), a pair of clownfish living in an anemone somewhere in the ocean. They are expecting their first clutch of 400 or so eggs to hatch any day, but their marital and impending bliss is interrupted by a wandering barracuda. Marlin tries to fight it off but is knocked unconscious. When he wakes, Coral is gone, along with all of the eggs but one, which hatches into Nemo (Alexander Gould). So, we have a traditional Disney one-parent family.
With that background, Marlin becomes an overly-protective father, unable to let Nemo do anything but stay at home, an attitude given strength by Nemo’s physical limitation: he has an underdeveloped fin. Eventually, Nemo goes off to school under the tutelage of a manta ray, but on the first day, he and several other kids wander off to the drop off, a place where the shallows of the coral reef descend into deep water. Marlin hasn’t gone too far away and catches the kids daring each other to swim out over the deep water. Naturally, he freaks out, and embarrassed, Nemo swims out to a boat in the distance. Having made his point, Nemo starts to swim back, but is bagged by a scuba diver, thus setting up the film. With his son captured, Marlin begins a frantic quest across the ocean to rescue Nemo and bring him home. Like I said, you’ve probably seen this a few times already.
It had been awhile since I’d watched this, again, because this is never a film that my kids pick on a given night. I hadn’t forgotten the main story here, but I did forget the collection of characters that are here. Pixar has a lot of great characters in its stable. Finding Nemo is most noteworthy for the creation of Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) a blue tang with memory issues. Dory is wildly comic, but like most really good characters in movies for kids, has a great heart. But in addition to Dory, we get Crush the turtle (director Andrew Stanton), Bruce the vegetarian shark (Barry Humphries), and Nigel the friendly pelican (Geoffrey Rush).
What also works here is the ping-ponging back and forth between the two stories. The main story is the search for Nemo across the ocean by Marlin and Dory, but a great deal of the film takes place in a salt water aquarium in the office of the dentist who captured Nemo. In the tank with him are a variety of fish, most notably Gill (Willem Dafoe), a scarred veteran of a number of escape attempts. The time in the aquarium is spent enforcing two ideas for the viewers. First, there is a deadline on getting Nemo out of the tank—he is intended as a gift for the dentist’s niece, a noted fish killer. Second, since Nemo is integral to the escape planned by Gill, and since this escape is potentially dangerous, the aquarium is all about Nemo learning to deal with his physical limitation.
Of course, the main story is about Marlin’s overprotectiveness and his coming to grips with the fact that his son is growing up and will eventually be able to get along without him. The pivotal moments happen near the end. The first comes when Dory and Marlin are swallowed by a whale. Convinced that this is going to be the end, Marlin refuses to let go of the whale’s tongue when told, but eventually does, only to be blown out of the whale’s spout into the harbor near where his son is. Later, once Nemo is back in the ocean and Dory is captured by a fishing boat, Marlin is forced to allow Nemo to risk himself to save Dory.
What makes Finding Nemo a good film is that it works on two very different levels in terms of the story. For kids, this is a pure adventure film that happens to have fish as the main characters. It’s fun, it’s mildly scary, there are funny characters and some great jokes, and it all ends happily. For parents, though, this is very much a film about what happens when your kids grow up. It’s not about them letting go; it’s about us letting go. It’s about realizing that even though the world is a dangerous place, we can’t always keep them safe. It’s about knowing that the dangers that are out there are real, but so is the joy and the fun, and the whole world.
I liked this more than I remembered, because that’s exactly where I am. My older daughter Gail is 16 and has a driver’s license. She’s taking classes at two colleges and has spent part of her last five summers away from home. In the last two years, she’s been gone for more than a month at a stretch. She’s growing up and having her own life now. When I first saw Finding Nemo, I missed that part of the story. Today, I get exactly what Marlin is going through.
Why to watch Finding Nemo: This is how you do a movie with animal main characters.
Why not to watch: The message is applied without much subtlety.