Jun 15 2012 12:00pm

It’s the Voyage Home That Matters: Finding Nemo

For years, bath time was Finding Nemo time.

Dory would say some silly things and forget where she was going. Marlin would worry. And Crush would take them both on a totally bodacious ride. Nemo always just got to have fun, jumping through rings or helping to say the sounds of the foam letters clinging to the bathtub wall.

Finding Nemo hit theaters when my son – our first child – was 2 ½ years old. It was the first movie we took him to see, and it terrified me.

The tragedy of the opening sequence in the movie colors everything that follows. Reportedly, an earlier version of the Finding Nemo story wove a flashback structure into the narrative, and the truth about Marlin’s loss didn’t become clear until later. In director Andrew Stanton’s final version, the death of Marlin’s wife and yet-to-be-born children is the gut-punch that begins the film. Marlin’s overprotective, panicked nature is understandable. He has lost everything, and only little Nemo survives. His last tiny piece of family.

Finding Nemo builds upon the ultimate parental fear: that something will happen to the kids. And it also taps into that most frightening aspect of a child’s life: being lost, far away from home, in a strange place. These are the kinds of things nightmares are made of.

And here’s Andrew Stanton, making an action-packed comedy with the stuff of those nightmares.

That’s the genius of Finding Nemo, of course, and as funny and thrilling as the movie can be, it retains its dark edge throughout, no matter how colorful the undersea landscapes remain.

Like most Pixar films, Finding Nemo is a story about trying to get back home. While many traditionally-animated Disney films emphasize exploration and adventure, as the young hero or heroine ventures out into a world fraught with danger, the bulk of Pixar productions seem more interested in saying, “sure, there’s plenty of excitement out there, and you’ll learn something important, but let’s just get back home where we’re safe.”

It’s the eternal heroic quest structure, the well-worn Joseph Campbell pathway into the unknown world and back again. But like that most ancient of examples, The Odyssey, it’s the voyage home that matters. Everything else just gets in the way.

But there’s more to Finding Nemo than just a classical structure and an emotional core built on the deepest-rooted of all parent-and-child fears. Andrew Stanton and the Pixar crew don’t stop there (though they could have, and it still would have been better than most films of this kind). Instead, they populate their underwater world with vivid characters, memorably-designed, well-written, and performed with immediate charm.

Albert Brooks centers the film, with his tentative Marlin, the father who braves the fiercest dangers because it’s the only thing he can do to save his son. It’s a Brooksian performance but not a traditional Brooks role. This character has Brooks’s usual cadence, but without the knowing confidence that underlies his sometimes-hesitant delivery. There’s always an honesty underneath Brooks’s biting wit in other roles, but he’s never as vulnerable as he is as Marlin. This is a fragile, fractured lead character, but Brooks keeps him from seeming pathetic. He’s a tiny heroic clownfish, against all odds.

When she performed as the frantic and scatter-brained Dory, Ellen DeGeneres wasn’t the cultural force she has since become. Her talk show launched the year Finding Nemo was released to theaters, and her voice work in the film seemed like a comeback only a couple of years after her fizzled sitcom career. As Dory, she’s a wonderful foil for Marlin, not because she plays the wise mentor who guides the hapless father (which, by Campbellian structuralism, is what her role should be), but because her seeming incompetence pushes Marlin to take charge. And pushes him to engage with the world around him, in a way that he hadn’t since the death of his wife.

The other characters provide amazing texture throughout Finding Nemo’s running time. The Willem Defoe character alone, the troubled Gill, has gravitas and pathos enough to fill the story with depth. At first he seems like a grown, cynical parallel version of Nemo, but he reveals himself to be much more complex – an alternative father figure for the young clownfish, with a grave but gentle bearing. And yet, he’s just a pet in a dentist’s fish tank. But under Stanton’s direction, it’s like something out of Sophocles.

I could go on, listing the variety of engaging supporting characters like Bruce the shark, and Crush the sea turtle, or the enthusiastic Mr. Ray, but once we start heading down that path, we’d be talking about every single minute of the movie, and you’re better off just watching it yourself, no matter how many times you’ve seen it before.

In the end, our aquatic Odysseus heads home with his son, to the safety of the anemone. But this time, it’s not out of a desperate need to prevent the intrusion of the outside world and the dangers it represents. It’s because they know what’s out there – and they know they can handle it – but home is where they would rather be. We know it can’t last forever. Nemo will be out on his own soon, and Marlin will be better prepared to let him go.

My own son, that former-toddler who saw Finding Nemo while just out of diapers, is just a few days from 5th grade graduation. He’s going to be 12 this year, already a teenager in all but the technicalities of the numbering. He’s off to middle school in the fall, and before I acclimate to that, he’ll be in high school, and then college, and then…

Well, the world awaits.

And though I’ll always worry, and I’ll always be there to help, I won’t stand in its way.

Thanks Andrew Stanton and Pixar. Thanks Marlin and Nemo. Your journey has meant more to me than you could possibly know.

Tim Callahan usually writes about comics for, but he also spends an estimated 850 hours a week as a husband and father.

1. SolarSoul25
A very enjoyable read, and agreed on all points.

Also, my son is just 9 months old (first child) but just thinking about everything you said here makes me both very excited and very nervous. I want him to grow up and experience life, but not that fast!
2. dav
Can't get enough of Brooks (ever) and Ellen in this. Dory is still my daughter's favorite Pixar character and we both still laugh at all of the jokes. The scene where Dory asks Marlin not to leave her (that shot with them so far apart in the hazy water, the music, the intonation, the feeling) kills me every time. Not my favorite Brooks performance, but a great hybrid of his neurotic schtick and a desperate, caring father.

Again, another summary that glosses over the completely amazing visual style of the movie. Finding Nemo holds up amazing well (Toy Story 3 probably outshines it, but in subtle ways that don't speak to the lushness and fluidity of the images). I still consider it the most beautiful of all of the Pixar movies (easy enough considering the environment), and I can't believe it's been 10 years and it still looks so good. Can't wait for the Blu-ray version to see it in HD.
3. rstanek
This is by far my favorite Pixar movie, and one of my favorite movies ever. I can't wait to show it to my son (age 2.5). (I'm a little worried, though, because it made me cry even BEFORE I had kids. And now? I'm going to be a wreck for like the entire movie.)
Rich Bennett
4. Neuralnet
probably the pixar movie that speaks to me the most... for the same reason as the reviewer... saw it as a first time/new parent, and it feeds into a lot of your neurosis. my son ended up naming his blanket meno and he still has a scrap of that thing hanging around the house (he is 10 now)

the scene where MArlin is swimming after the boat is some of the most beautiful computer animation ever in my opinion. the whole movie in general is flat out gorgeous.
5. Tesh
As beautiful as the show is, and as good as Marlin is, I just don't like to rewatch this movie. Dory drives me nuts. She's the synthesis of annoying people I've dealt with in real life; socially needy, overtalkative, clueless, clingy barnacles. Maybe Marlin needed an ally for the story to work, but Dory just doesn't work for me.
James Whitehead
6. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
In my family all great whites are called Bruce & speak with an Australian accent. ;-) We love Dory & often one of the kids starts humming "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming..." (Yes, yes. I know it's in your head now. Sorry.)


PS - Plus coming from the Boston area, we love the lobsters (It's wicked dahk down theah..."
7. Stefan Jones
Finding Nemo was the first Pixar film to venture into the realm of timeless insane greatness.

Dory is annoying. And also pitiable. A holy fool, and a reminder that we're all bozos on this bus.

8. Tumas-Muscat
I found the film also says something about perceived 'handicaps' we may see around us. Dory, Nemo and Gill all their have their own deficiencies, but manage to prove their worth by the end.
9. Halcyal
A great set of reviews so far on an absolutely amazing set of movies from a (frankly) astoundingly talented studio. (Seriously, Pixar's creative force and competence are a little frightening to think about sometimes. People, even the very best, usually aren't that consistently good at producing top-class, major-scale creative endeavours.)

Also, Stefan Jones @ 7: "...Mine?"
10. AlBrown
A lovely movie, both visually and in its sentiments. The best fairy tales are rooted in darkness, and this is no exception. The fact that the dangers are real is never lost on the viewer, which makes the humor more poignant, and the success at the end all the sweeter.
Claire de Trafford
11. Booksnhorses
And yet, biologically, Marlin should have turned into Mrs Clownfish after her demise and one of the hermaphrodite clownfish followers should have stepped up into the male role. Mind-boggling. Absolutely great movie though.
12. Jessica2
To me, this movie comes down to the scene in the whale:

"How do you know something bad isn't going to happen?"

"I don't."

The movie repeats the theme of needing to not live a life of fear again and again throughout, and it could have treated that simply and reassuringly, saying 'Be brave, and great things will happen!' Of course that is what it does say, but Finding Nemo really won me over in this moment: 'How do you know something bad isn't going to happen?' 'I don't.' But stay still, and nothing good will happen to you either.

I really love this movie.
13. AlBrown
Just had my granddaughter in the pool yesterday for the first time this season, and as she dogpaddled her heart out, and struggled to keep her head above water, under her breath I heard her singing, "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming..."
Jose Solis
14. bludemos
Being a father of a little girl, this movie always touches me...

I love lots of things about the movie, but I'm particularly fond of this wonderful piece of dialogue:

"How do you know if they're ready?"
"Well, you never really know, but when they know, you know, y'know?"

So true... ;)

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