Marlin and Coral are young and in love. They’ve just moved to a new neighborhood, found the perfect house and are waiting expectantly for their first baby to be born. Make that babies. Hundreds of babies.
Life is good for the young couple. And then it’s not. A ferocious attacker kills Coral and devours her offspring, leaving behind the frightened Marlin and a single tiny egg. You knew Marlin wasn’t human, right? He’s a clownfish. But he’s not laughing. Clutching his one remaining progeny close to his gill, he sinks into the depths, mourning his wife and children.
The gloomy days and scary nights slowly pass. The lonely egg has hatched and the little baby clownfish—named Nemo—grows into a little boy clownfish who’s ready for fish school. But Marlin’s not very happy about turning Nemo loose in the big blue sea. “It’s dangerous out there,” he repeatedly tells the lad.
Time has a way of marching forward whether you want it to or not, though. And one day Marlin relents and takes Nemo to school. Life is good.
And then it’s not, again.
Unceremoniously snatched from school by a scuba diver, Nemo finds himself in a fish tank in a dentist’s office in Sydney, Australia. Devastated, Marlin searches the seven seas for his boy, facing all manner of terrors (sharks, jellyfish, raging currents, exploding mines) along the way.
Marlin’s encounter with the barracuda that decimated his young family drove a permanent stake of fear through his heart. And he transfers his misgivings to his son. Instead of encouraging him to spread his wings—er, flip his fins—he shelters him to a smothering degree. This breeds anger and rebellion in Nemo and creates further unhappiness for Marlin. The film stresses the need to maintain balance in your family life and in the way you introduce your kids to the world. And an extended family of sea turtles provides insight into how steady, loving relationships can flow more smoothly.
“When my son was five,” director Andrew Stanton says, “I remember taking him to the park. I had been working long hours and felt guilty about not spending enough time with him. As we were walking, I was experiencing all this pent up emotion and thinking, ‘I-miss-you, I-miss-you,’ but I spent the whole walk going, ‘Don’t touch that. Don’t do that. You’re gonna fall in there.’ And there was this third-party voice in my head saying, ‘You’re completely wasting the entire moment that you’ve got with your son right now.’ I became obsessed with this premise that fear can deny a good father from being one. With that revelation, all the pieces fell into place and we ended up with our story.”
The other end of this thread proffers spiritual allusions, hinting at elements found in the parable of the prodigal son. Nemo doesn’t run away, but his rebellion certainly leads to him losing his relationship with his father, his security and his freedom, just as the son did in Jesus’ Luke 15 tale. Marlin repeatedly warns Nemo of the danger he’s putting himself in, but Nemo doesn’t listen. When things go sour and Nemo is captured, Marlin immediately begins searching for him, overcoming his fear by risking life and limb to bring him back. He refuses to give up on him. And he doesn’t sulk and get mad at Nemo for being foolish.
The lesson here for parents is that we shouldn’t stifle and needlessly frustrate our kids. The lesson for children is that when you think your parents are being overprotective, remember that they’re genuinely concerned for your safety and happiness and sometimes know better than you. Early in the movie, Nemo tells his dad he hates him. It concludes with Nemo going out of his way to make sure his dad knows he loves him.
Children will also be inspired by Nemo’s bravery and courage while he’s away from his dad. And we can all learn a thing or two from Dory, the plucky, daffy, memory-impaired blue fish, as she gamely “just keep[s] swimming.” It’s a beautiful thing to behold, her perseverance in the face of a mental challenge that would have driven most fish into silent subsistence. It’s she who challenges Marlin’s insistence that he’s fighting his fight for his son all alone, reminding him bluntly, I’m helping you.
Elsewhere, an aquarium fish apologizes to Nemo for selfishly putting him in danger. Dory elevates the idea of trusting your friends.
Dory credits evolution for making her a fast swimmer.
Beginning with the attack on Marlin’s family, and ending with a scuffle with unsavory crabs, Finding Nemo contains quite a few intense underwater conflicts sure to go unnoticed by your average 14-year-old but guaranteed to traumatize their four-year-old siblings. Foremost among the violent sequences is one that features a famished shark. He bites, barrels into barriers and in every way possible tries to snarf down Marlin and Dory.
Throughout the film, fish slam into rocks, walls, other fish, etc. Jellyfish sting and almost kill Marlin and Dory. The pair is swallowed by a whale and a pelican. They’re viciously attacked by a deep-sea beast in a startling black-and-light sequence designed to give full effect to the creature’s mammoth teeth. Seagulls chase them.
When a pelican flies into the dentist’s office, his flailing wings make a serious mess of the place. The dentist knocks himself out when he hits his head on one of his instruments. Nemo finds himself in danger of being chopped up by the whirling gears in the fish tank’s water purification system. A human girl (roughly the evil equivalent of Toy Story‘s Sid) violently shakes Nemo while he’s in a bag of water. Nemo and other fish gasp and choke while out of the water. Dory bleeds a little bit when a diving mask hits her. (Her blood is what sends the shark on his rampage.) Underwater mines detonate, lighting up the ocean floor with their explosions.
We hear “crikey” and an interjection each of “gosh,” “golly” and “darn.” “What the …?” is left hanging three times. When the fish in the dentist’s tank purposefully foul their environment to make him clean it, one asks, “Does anybody realize we’re swimming in our own …?” (He’s interrupted by a starfish saying “Shhh.”)
A group of pelicans joke about one of their pals having had “more than he can handle” while it’s still early in the morning.
Dentistry isn’t done any favors in Finding Nemo. Close-ups of the doctor working on people’s mouths provide a couple of unsavory moments: One man screams as the drill sinks into this tooth. Another has his tooth yanked out when the dentist is startled.
Seagulls poop on Marlin and Dory. A young squid expels a cloud of ink every time she’s frightened. The first time it happens, she says, “You guys made me ink.” Flatulence is used as the punch line for a sly sight gag. Several fish belch loudly. When they’re trying to make the tank grimy, Nemo and the other fish are urged to “think dirty thoughts.”
Finding Nemo is an endearing, engaging adventure boasting what may well be the most lavish animation seen to date on the big screen. The trickle, ebb and swoosh of the ever-present water is marvelously rendered. The vivid hues of the Great Barrier Reef are breathtaking. And I could almost smell the stench gurgling out of the whale’s belly when Marlin and Dory got sucked inside. Sometimes the scenery is so awe-inspiring, in fact, that it upstages the story running through it.
What the scenery never obscures, though, are the colorful characters. They’re so endearing they’ll put your family off fish for weeks. One can hardly expect a 6-year-old to fall in love with Nemo and then scarf down a plateful of tuna the next day. “Fish are friends, not food” is a slogan repeated several times during the film by 12-stepping vegetarian sharks. Not that there’s anything wrong with personifying the food chain for fun; just be prepared for some kids to feel differently about it than you do!
One other thing precocious youngsters might feel compelled to do after seeing Nemo is flush their favorite goldfish. They won’t be trying to kill the creatures, they’ll be trying to free them. Onscreen, Nemo’s tankmates insist that “all drains lead to the sea,” and Nemo eventually escapes confinement by sliding into the sewer.
On a more serious note, if your youngest children personalize and internalize the peril constantly confronting Nemo and his family, it’ll be hard for them to keep their little lower lips from quivering. The screening I attended was wall-to-wall children. And when the sharks attacked and the tension mounted, some of the younger ones did indeed start wailing.
Move up an age bracket or two, and it’ll be the emotional inspiration of Nemo and his dad’s desperate battle to be reunited, and Dory’s cheerful determination to keep on keepin’ on that’ll make the biggest splash.
A 3-D UPDATE: As mentioned, Finding Nemo is a beautifully animated movie that holds up perfectly nearly a decade later. Its colors are spectacular. The movement of the water mesmerizing. Adding 3-D to that mix (in a 2012 theatrical re-release) certainly calls attention to the layer upon layer of scenery, but this is such an artistic movie to begin with that the extra frill actually does little to boost the overall effect. For some people, in fact, putting on those gray 3-D glasses will take away some of the richness.