“Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim!”
Most animated feature films are adventures of some sort. We have toys trying to get back to their owner, a lion fleeing his country and then returning to save it, an ogre trying to save the homes of fairytale characters, and even embodiments of emotions trying to get through a brain to set things right emotionally. The adventure formula of having a character or group of characters set out on a quest to accomplish something is well-known and well-loved. In my opinion, though, there’s no better animated adventure than Finding Nemo. Directed by Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, A Bug’s Life) and Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3, Coco), this is a bit unique for an animated feature not only because it’s about fish, but also because there’s not really a villain. Most Disney and Pixar films will be a man-versus-man plot, with a principal character trying to accomplish something and an antagonist trying to stop them. This film sets the principal characters against nature and fate, which prove to be just as cruel and powerful a foe as any villain ever was. I think this helps the adventure formula, which I’ll get into below. But audiences agreed: this film surpassed The Lion King to become the highest grossing animated film of its time. It’s a great adventure film, and truly one that just about anyone in the family can enjoy.
The story follows Marlin, a clownfish, and his single son Nemo, a young clownfish with a slight deformity. Due to a past accident that cost Marlin his wife and all but one of his children—and also due to Nemo’s deformity—Marlin is extremely protective of Nemo and is scared to let him do anything. In an effort to prove his bravery and independence, Nemo swims out to touch a boat which is anchored just off of their reef and swim back. Unfortunately, he’s captured by a diver and taken back to a fish tank in a dentist’s office with some other tropical fish. Marlin sets off on his journey to find his son, along the way meeting Dory, a blue tang with a sunny disposition and short term memory loss. Meanwhile, Nemo and his newfound tank friends hatch a plan to escape their captivity and return to the sea. Both face incredible opposition in their tasks and have a lot to overcome in reuniting with each other.
There’s a quote from the short story “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane that so perfectly sums up the conflict here:
When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important … he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation.“The Open Boat,” section VI
Most animated films will set up an evil villain to oppose the hero because the dynamic concept of good and evil is one that’s so well understood. No one watched Aladdin and rooted for Jafar—everyone watching that movie just instinctively knew that Aladdin had to win. We all want to believe that there’s an inherent justice in life and that good will always triumph over evil, and when that sense of justice is threatened, someone must be to blame. But when your principal characters are up against nature, that dynamic is gone. Nature doesn’t care about justice, nor does it care about good or evil, and there’s nobody to blame—as in the quote above, there’s no temple to throw bricks at, and there are no bricks. As a result, the principal characters are no longer really heroes—they’re just characters who are struggling. This is something the film also uses to great effect, showing characters being helpful in one moment and harmful the next, showing us that anyone, even the good guys, can be the antagonist of someone else’s story sometimes. The soulless ocean proves to be a more terrifying opponent than any villain in animated film history because it does not care about the outcome one bit, also heightening the tension because there’s no true hero representing the force of good which must win.
Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.
One thing I really appreciated about this film was how empowering it was. Two out of the three principal characters have a disability—Nemo has a deformed fin and Dory has cognitive impairment. Both of them set out to accomplish their goals, but the pessimistic Marlin tells them that they can’t do that because of their disabilities—something he later learns is not true. This film doesn’t create Mary Sue characters who are good at everything—it doesn’t shy away from showing how Nemo and Dory struggle to do everyday things—but it shows them overcoming these difficulties and accomplishing what they need to, even as others tell them they can’t. Most films making a point like this would go out of their way to do so, allowing the point to hurt the overall story, but in this case, the story is actually made better because of this struggle. It doesn’t feel forced or hamfisted; it’s just a part of these characters. It gives people with disabilities, myself included, heroes to look to without losing anyone else in the audience.
And I can’t talk about this film without talking about Ellen Degeneres’s amazing performance as Dory. Ellen was well known as a comedian and had seen some success there, but her only attempt at a major movie role (Martha Alston in 1996’s Mr. Wrong) was disastrous. The directors planned to record her delivering a few takes of her emotional speech to Marlin near the end and send it home with her to listen to and practice with. She got so emotional during that practice recording that she started crying and could only do one take. She apologized profusely to the directors, thinking she had failed, but that emotion came through so perfectly that that practice take was what they ended up using in the film. Dory is a surprisingly complex character, and Ellen, even with minimal acting experience, really brought her to life. Ellen so liked playing Dory that she asked Pixar for years to make a sequel—which they did 13 years later, with Dory as the main character.
Finding Nemo is a great animated adventure film that appeals to a very wide range of viewers. I was in college when this was released, and I saw it no less than eight times in theaters. I recently watched this with my four-year-old nephew and he also loved it. The themes here are universal and relatable to just about anybody, making this one of the most widely-enjoyable films on my list. This is also a great film for anybody with any sort of disability, not only for having main characters with disabilities, but also for not making a big deal about it. All that to say, this is a film for everyone, and a great one at that. If you haven’t seen it, you really should.
Director: Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich
Genres: adventure, animated