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“Finding Nemo” (2004): Retrospective Realizations

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Ash has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

Finding Nemo is a computer animated children’s film released by Pixar and Disney in the wake of such beloved films as Toy Story and A Bug’s Life.

It was hugely popular at the time of its release, and I recall that no one could shut up about it. Everyone at my high school was quoting the film, and even I occasionally found myself singing, “Just keep swimming . . . Just keep swimming . . .” Now, about sixteen years later, I find myself reflecting on some things I hadn’t really noticed before.

Here they are.

Nemo’s Mom Was Dumb

Yeah. You read that right. Coral (Elizabeth Perkins) was really dumb.

Most Disney films will have the mother die in a horrific way (dammit, Bambi’s mom!!!), but Coral’s death, on top of being horrific, was also really . . . . pointless.

Think about it. A barracuda comes to eat Coral and Marlon’s eggs. Coral has zero way of protecting said eggs. There is no booby-trap rigged over the nest (which would have been clever, since these are talking fish and all). She has no razor-sharp fins and teeth. She can’t pick up a weapon and beat the barracuda to death. Essentially, all she can do is blow bubbles at it. Oh, and she’s tiny.

And yet, what does Coral do? She senselessly throws herself in front of the eggs! But why? This action was neither heroic nor brave. It was just dumb.

Marlon warns Coral to get “back in the house” because he knows how senseless it would be to try and save the eggs. The two of them could just make more eggs. Why throw their lives away as well? The eggs aren’t sentient and I doubt they feel pain. Coral throwing away her life to save them was crazy and irrational.

Worst of all, I remember my chemistry teacher using this film to lecture us teenagers about abortion being “murder.” He was a misogynist who hated women (most of our chemistry classes were spent listening to him rant angrily about his ex-wife. He also made fun of me a lot – mimicking me in a shrill voice, etc -- to the point that I quit his computer building class. It was an early 101 about why most women don’t go into STEM), so I wasn’t surprised when he made his unfortunate speech. He ruined the film for me for years.

(To be clear, I'm not saying all men are "pro-life" just because my bitter chemistry teacher was. Most men are pro-choice because they don't want to pay child support (not because they actually give a sh*t about women). The men who are "pro-life" are usually the hardcore woman-haters.)

I won’t go into the specifics of an embryo versus a fetus versus a fully developed baby. Let’s just say, there’s a huge difference between fully-developed Child Nemo and underdeveloped Egg Nemo.

That Coral placed value on Egg Nemo was her right – but it was her individual right, and not every clownfish should be expected to throw herself at a barracuda for her oblivious, undeveloped eggs.

Hint, hint.

Also, Marlon only put value on Egg Nemo because the egg was all he had left of his family. Just a minute before, he was telling Coral to abandon the eggs and protect her own life. His values changed when Coral threw her life away. (Because values can do that. Values can change.)

We aren’t talking about the choice to place a value on life here. We’re talking about the choice of placing a value on potential life. How ironic would it have been had Coral thrown her life away for an egg that turned out to be a dud?

Eww.

Eww.

It’s also hella amusing in hindsight that my chemistry teacher would use this movie for an abortion analogy. In real life, clownfish will put a great amount of value on their eggs. As a snack. They guard the eggs until they hatch . . . and then they start eating their own young. I’m not even joking.

So yeah. In real life, Marlon would have eaten Nemo (or turned into a female clownfish and mated with his own son – again, not even joking). Clownfish don’t care about the egg once it’s hatched. After they are born, little clownfish are left to fend for themselves.

Hmm. On second thought, it’s actually a very good analogy. It’s exactly how Pro-lifers behave.

Clownfish Are Actually Tiny

I was standing in the pet store last week when I noticed a tank full of clownfish, and I realized that, man . . . Clownfish are tiny. The ones I saw were a little bit shorter than my pinky finger!

I raised my hand to the glass and the clownfish all darted away, startled by what I had done. They seemed terrified that I would reach through and grab them somehow, and it reminded me of frightened, neurotic Marlon.

There were also some beautiful blue "Dory" fish in the next tank, and they, too, were tiny.

Realizing just how small the fish are in the film makes you appreciate this movie even more. It shows how brave they were to head into the big, wide ocean in search of Nemo. Marlon, a tiny clownfish, faced down sharks, jellyfish, and human divers for the love of his son.

The Villain Wasn’t That Great

This isn’t something that I just noticed. I always felt Darla was a hand-me-down Sid. Watching the film again just reinforces this belief.

Darla was a little girl who obliviously killed fish by shaking them to death. She is the typical Early-Pixar-Era villain in that she doesn’t know she’s a villain. Just like Sid in Toy Story didn’t know he was killing sentient beings and the bird in A Bug’s Life didn’t notice that the grasshoppers could talk, Darla is oblivious to the terror she imposes on the tiny creatures that live in her shadow.

I dunno. I just didn’t find her that memorable. At least Sid was interesting as a character (“That ain’t no happy child!”), being a black-clad psycho who mutilates toys for fun. Darla was just an annoying little girl with braces.

Still, her annoying behavior led to some funny and memorable lines:

“Find a happy place, find a happy place, FIND A HAPPY PLACE!”

Dory Has Been to the Surface

I realize that non-human fantasy characters frequently make references we humans would understand for comedic effect (Marlon mentions Moby Dick at one point), but . . . If we want to look at this from an in-universe perspective, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) makes a lot of references to things on the surface she shouldn’t even know about.

Within about five minutes of her introduction, for instance, she makes a reference to party balloons. But . . . how does she know what a balloon is unless she’s been to the surface?

And for some hilariously bizarre reason, Dory can read English. Yes, she’s technically speaking English, but we-the-audience are supposed to pretend that she is really speaking some weird fish language that has been translated into English for our benefit.

No, I’m totally not a dork.

Gill Was a Foil for Marlon

For those that don’t speak Nerd, a foil is a character that exists to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of another character. For example, Melonie Hamilton from Gone with the Wind was the exact opposite of Scarlett O’Hara. Melonie was truly kindhearted, was honorable, and put the needs of others before her own, while Scarlett was mean, selfish, and a bully.

Gill (Willem Dafoe) existed to highlight Marlon’s strengths and weaknesses as a character.

Like Marlon, Gill had seen the terrors of ocean life. But instead of becoming terrorized and cowardly, he becomes fearless and hard – a little too hard.

He teaches Nemo (Alexander Gould) to be self-sufficient, encouraging him to free himself from the filter pipe when he gets stuck. At the same time, however, he doesn’t take care to caution Nemo against danger. Instead, he deliberately puts him in danger for his own selfish ends.

In an attempt to escape the dentist’s office, Gill has Nemo plug the filter. When the plan backfires, Nemo is almost sucked into the fan and killed. He barely escapes with his life. It’s here that Gill realizes that he has been short-sighted and selfish: he was willing to risk a child’s life to escape back to the ocean.

Marlon (Albert Brooks), on the other hand, is just the opposite. He’s a neurotic, terrified mess who deeply fears the ocean. This seems to have happened as a result of Coral’s death, though we don’t see enough of him before the event to really know.

He tells his son that he isn’t strong and that he can’t do anything, to the point that Nemo underestimates himself and his own strengths and even comes to resent his father, telling him that he hates him.

Arguably, what Marlon does to Nemo is emotional abuse. He’s smothering his son to the point that he won’t let him live, while crippling his confidence by telling him over and over that his little fin makes him too weak to do anything on his own.

Of course, Marlon isn’t abusing Nemo from a place of malice. He’s abusing from a place of fear. It’s the same way Gill isn’t taking advantage of Nemo from a place of malice but more from a place of fear – the fear that he will live the rest of his life in a dentist’s fish tank.

Being Nemo’s father, however, Marlon also has a healthy concern for his safety. Unlike Gill, he would never put Nemo in deliberate danger nor ask him to risk his life.

Gill exists to help the audience understand that Marlon means well. He’s just damaged by the death of his wife. It’s the same way that Gill means well, he’s just damaged by a life of captivity.

It’s the Journey, Not the Destination

During his travels, Marlon goes through a transformation. To me, this is why the film is called Finding Nemo. It’s about Marlon and Nemo both developing as characters through their adventures. Marlon becomes braver, while Nemo becomes more self-sufficient and strong.

Marlon learns from Dory how to lighten up and have fun, that life doesn’t have to be all fear and hiding from danger. During the jellyfish sequence, he is shown laughing and smiling outside his sea anemone for the first time in the film. He has finally learned to relax, rather than letting fear rule his life.

Immediately after the jellyfish sequence, Marlon meets a sea turtle named Crush who is also a parent (“Whoa, whoa, whoa. ‘Mr. Turtle’ is my father.”). Marlon is shocked to learn that sea turtles abandon their young on the beach, allowing them to find their own way back to the ocean.

As they are riding the current to Sydney, Crush’s son gets blown out. Marlon panics, but Crush cautions him to wait and see what happens.

Instead of needing to be rescued, the baby sea turtle learns to fend for himself .He struggles until he breaks back into the current on his own and is praised by his proud father.

Watching the turtles interact, Marlon realizes that there comes a time when a parent has to let go.

Dory Follows Taoist Philosophy

Taoist philosophy is basically about going with the flow. Whatever happens, happens, and it’s ultimately best to just go along with it and choose to be happy, believing and knowing that things will get better.

When Dory and Marlon are swallowed by a whale, it’s a truly character defining moment. Dory has fun, laughing and shouting as the water in the whale’s mouth spins her back and forth. In sharp contrast, Marlon completely panics and has a breakdown. He tries to escape the situation by desperately beating himself against the inside of the whale’s mouth, only to slowly sink to its tongue in defeat.

An ever-positive Dory comforts Marlon, telling him that everything will be all right. Marlon insists on seeing the bad side of things, but Dory insists on seeing the beauty of the situation, of living in the moment and enjoying it for its possibilities. She literally goes with the flow (floating along inside the whale’s mouth) and chooses not to worry – this is Taoist philosophy.

This is further underscored as the scene progresses.

When the water in the whale’s mouth starts going down, Marlon says it’s half-empty, while Dory insists it’s half-full. It’s the writers’ funny, clever way of highlighting the personalities of both characters.

The whale instructs them to let go of her tongue. Marlon is convinced she’s trying to eat them, but Dory trustingly lets go. She is caught by Marlon, who demands to know how she doesn’t know something bad will happen. Dory looks at Marlon and shouts, “I don’t!”

Bad things happen. We can choose to live in terror or we can choose to live. This is what Marlon must learn while, ahem, finding Nemo.

As it turns out, the whale was friendly and had carried them to Sydney. The water was leaving her mouth because she was spitting them out at their destination.

So Marlon did all that worrying and stressing for nothing, while Dory knew the pleasure of being happy always, regardless of circumstance.

And Last But Not Least

Dory speaking “whale” is the funniest thing, possibly, ever.