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Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) had a dream life on the edge of a great coral reef, raising a family with his wife, but a barracuda arrives and takes it all away, leaving one tiny egg for Marlin to raise. Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould) grows to be a sheltered fish, one fin a little smaller than the other. Marlin makes sure nothing happens to him and prefers to keep him close, but must let him go for his school field trip, inadvertently embarrassing Nemo just before the class leaves. To prove himself among his peers, Nemo swims away from the others and is caught by a dentist scuba diving nearby and taken ashore to live in a fish tank.
When Marlin sees his son taken, he panics and races after the speeding boat but can’t keep up, though a diving mask falls into the water with an address on it, which isn’t helpful since Marlin can’t read English. He runs into a fish named Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres), a regal blue tang with short-term memory loss who can, inexplicably, read, and while she doesn’t always know what is going on, decides to help Marlin find Nemo.
Directed by Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, Finding Nemo is the fifth full-length animated film from Pixar, an Academy Award winner for Best Animated Feature, and one of the most successful films of all time. The themes of family, never giving up, and ecology were all strong attractions (even though the movie’s negative portrayal of captured fish still caused a massive spike in clownfish sales that decimated the species population). A visually stunning work, the computer-animation was unlike anything seen on-screen before, and viewers were swept away into a vivid, lifelike ocean setting that captured imaginations around the world. Finding Nemo remains a beloved family film and its two leads, Marlin and Dory, are now iconic.
Finding Nemo, like many Pixar films, is chock full of familiar themes, especially those about keeping a dream and never giving up. It’s a common plot point of many children’s stories and Pixar addresses this in Nemo regularly. Dory, a fish that can barely maintain a conversation due to her memory issues, is the voice of that philosophy throughout, with her mantra, “Just keep swimming” revisited often. It’s effective and profoundly inspiring. But there is much more going on here than holding on to dreams and being persistent. One of the better explored but lesser realized elements is trust, twice given weight in the story, both beautifully scripted and directed.
It’s first mentioned when Marlin and Dory, having traveled far already and have dealt with ‘vegetarian’ sharks and a sunken submarine, learn about the East Australian Current, which will take them to Sydney. Along the way, they come to a deep trench (actually an undersea canyon) that looms with menacing shadows. For Marlin, this is nothing but a sign of danger, his life of fear and hiding forcing him to believe anything unknown is deadly. Dory, more adventurous and experienced, sees no danger lurking in the dark, in fact, getting a feeling that the trench is the safer path than going up and over, as Marlin suggests. Her memory is lacking, but there are significant remnants that pop-up in reminder. She tells him she has a red flag about the situation that she can’t quite put her finger on (she was warned earlier by a school of fish to go through not over the trench) and thinks they should swim through it, but he balks, telling her it has death written all over it. She says he should trust her, something that friends do, but Marlin distracts her anyway and convinces her to go up. So up they go.
It’s up above the trench where they encounter the stinging jellyfish, a great cluster of them that pose a horrific hurdle, especially Dory who does not have the immunity that Marlin has. They play a game to get out, bouncing on the domed heads, but Dory is eventually struck and knocked unconscious forcing Marlin to make a desperate rescue and escape. It leaves her with a scar on her left side.
Not long after, once they are taken in by a group of sea turtles who guide them through the current, the arrive on the other side and enter a part of the ocean they have never seen. Unsure where to go, they swim in circles until Marlin panics and wants to head for the surface. Dory stops him and tells him all they need to do is ask for directions. Spotting a shadowy figure in the distance, she beckons, but Marlin hushes her and demands she stop, fearing that whatever that creature is in the distance could ingest them and spit out their bones. Dory rolls her eyes and wonders why he’s so fearful all the time, and tells him that sometimes they have to take a chance and see what happens. But more importantly, to trust her. The words harken back to the trench, and seeing her scar as a reminder of his failure to listen before, he lets her continue and soon enough, a massive minke whale appears. But just as he suspected, it ingests them, much to Marlin’s fury, who criticizes her for speaking whale and luring them to their death. Soon the whale’s mouth empties of water and it bellows a signal, to which Dory understands as meaning they must move to the throat and accept where they’ll end up, but Marlin holds on in fear. She cries out that he must let go, that everything will be alright, and at last he does. With that, they are blown out of the whale’s blowhole . . . and land in Sydney harbor.
Dory has nothing but the moments she is living in, her past a patchwork of mostly empty or faded memories that only hint at who she is. All she knows is the present, and for her, it brings her joy, to see the world fresh with every passing few minutes. Marlin is a box of stress, a fish living in the past, haunted by a tragedy that has shaped his every move (or lack thereof). All things are dangerous so all things are to be avoided. Question everything and assume the worst; it’s a philosophy he clings to. It’s kept him and his son Nemo alive, but also without experience.
Marlin’s existence focuses on assessment and choice, making decisions based on rudimentary visual observations that fall into one of two categories: life or death. When presented with the unknown, especially if that unknown lies in shadow, it is to be feared. The trench represents everything that Marlin has come to be worrisome of. It’s dark, foreboding and unfamiliar. Therefore it must be death (the filmmakers even show a fish skeleton out of Marlin and Dory’s field of view for the audience’s benefit, increasing the aura of impending doom). Consider that for all of Nemo’s life, Marlin has been all he knows, a smothering blanket of protection while Marlin has sacrificed himself to be a solitary guard, avoiding anyone and anything to keep Nemo safe. Trust is a luxury he can’t afford.
Marlin’s relationship with Dory is one of necessity, at least for most of the film. She is a companion that has a sense of where to go, but moreover, she can read and because of that, she has value. It’s important that this is how things begin for the two. He is a desperate father with no time for friendships, especially now. He is impatient, fretful, and indifferent to anything else. We also forgive him for such because of his situation. We’d do the same.
Dory has proven herself to be a bit of a goof, despite her charms, and Marlin has yet to take her seriously. That’s especially so when they arrive at the massive trench and she tells him they need to swim through it. It’s ridiculous, he thinks. Her condition has made it so she can’t remember that the school of fish from earlier had told her to avoid going over, but their warning has left a slight impression and it’s enough for her to believe she’s right. Marlin, who did not see or hear the fish tell Dory about the trench, isn’t convinced. Her plea for trust falls on deaf ears. And for it, she pays dearly.
For a children’s film, the jarring turn taken in the jellyfish pod is a powerful one. Dory, who at this point in the story, for the audience, is fast becoming an endearing character, is seemingly the comic relief, but is revealing herself to be the real anchor to the message. Having her so detrimentally injured and visibly distressed in the jellyfish is shocking, and Marlin’s rescue of her is heartfelt and heroic. It’s a challenging moment that Pixar presents us with, and one that serves the story well, but more importantly establishes consequence. She is scarred by the incident, a striking reminder for Marlin of his failure to trust, something that he abandoned to keep Nemo alive, but now has nearly cost him his newest friend.
When trust is presented again, in the shadow of an approaching whale, Marlin, by instinct, succumbs to his fears, but is deterred from acting on it by Dory’s persistent up-beat and positive consideration of every situation. She asks him to trust her again, not because of what happened before, but because that’s who she is. For the first time in the film, Dory’s memory loss has genuine value as a storytelling device. As she is unable to recall her near death at Marlin’s hands for going over the trench, she can’t use her scar as a weapon of guilt. Her plea for trust, just like before, is authentic and present. Marlin sees that as well, and the sting marks on her side are the nudge that convince him to do as she asks.
While the subtext of all this is immediately overshadowed by Dory’s hilarious, bellowing call to the whale, trust becomes a pillar of the film’s larger theme, one that is less prescient than the core motif of never giving up. It is handled with more subtlety, and wonderfully so. The presence of the whale is its greatest asset, an evocative moment where Marlin must make the last great leap of faith and trust another in order to move on or perish. That is the point of trust. You give up the power to control and put in someone else’s hands warrant over your fate, be it small or everlasting. In the whale’s mouth, Dory doesn’t know if letting go means everything will be okay, but she knows not doing so means never finding out. She trusts the whale. And that’s all she needs. Marlin learns to do the same.
Both Marlin and Dory will return in the upcoming Finding Dory.
Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich
Andrew Stanton (original story by), Andrew Stanton (screenplay)
Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould