Finding Nemo (2003) by Andrew Stanton
Retro Review by Zach Dennis
There isn’t much question in my own mind that Pixar’s Finding Nemo is one of my favorite films of all-time. While I wasn’t as high on the sequel as I had hoped, it did offer the gift of taking a chance to re-visit the first film, which I think is overlooked in terms of Pixar’s masterpieces for the traits it has, which add it to that upper echelon with films like Toy Story, Up, and Wall*E.
What separates Nemo from the rest of Pixar’s library is its attention to detail and its full immersion into a world that feels expansive. It is easy to drop the audience into a world that seems big, but Nemo offers a world that seems to stretch as we go along. I’m not sure of a better way to phrase that, but watching Nemo gives you the sense that both time has passed and land (or in this case, ocean) has been traveled.
I think the allure of Nemo is also the breathtaking beauty of the animated ocean. One factor that immediately draws me in — mainly due to my obsession with the vastness and unknown abyss of the ocean — is how writer/director Andrew Stanton was able to capture this size and scale, but still keep the story grounded and human (which is ironic for obvious reasons).
The film contains small moments that play to the grandiose nature of the ocean as well as the subtle beauty of its quiet charm. Coupled with Thomas Newman’s melodic score, there is a sense of serenity within these seconds-long moments, and in this place, Stanton and Nemo thrive. The director would perfect those even more with his follow-up film, Wall*E, but there is something about having it done with the ocean and its all-encompassing, vastness that really works.
But there is something even deeper that struck me on this latest (and probably 100th) time of watching Nemo, and it is something I was a little unsure if I should write about. I would like to be upfront and say that I have zero parenting experience and have no kids of my own, but the exploration of what it means to have responsibility over someone struck a chord with me in this film.
To expand, the story follows Marlin (Albert Brooks), a clownfish who is just married and has found a home. As he celebrates with his wife, and they excitedly plan their future as parents, tragedy strikes and his wife, Coral, is taken from him. He is left with just one child, Nemo (Alexander Gould), who he helicopter parents in an attempt to avoid the accident that left him without a wife and Nemo without a mother.
But that method fails and Nemo is taken away by a diver while rebelling against his father’s overbearing parenting methods. In a frantic move, Marlin rushes after Nemo and runs into Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), who suffers from short-term memory loss and offers to aid in Marlin’s quest to find his son (well offers is a strong word, she tags along and doesn’t leave).
Along the way, Marlin begins to develop the nurturing techniques that he should’ve been instilling on Nemo before while interacting with Dory. In these moments, Marlin is forced to come to terms with the ways he treated Nemo and how constraining him was only going to push him away more. Marlin learns that the only way to allow your child to grow is to let them go and figure it out by themselves.
This is better defined in a scene where Marlin watches as the small sea turtle Squirt flies out of the water stream they’re riding in, and seems lost to the current. Marlin attempts to abruptly rush towards Squirt, but is held back by Squirt’s father, Crush, who tells Marlin to “see what little Squirt does.” Shortly after, Squirt returns and is raving about his experience and without a scratch on him.
As Marlin makes his way to Australia to re-unite with his own son, he is beginning to comprehend what it means to be a parent and the constant struggle of wanting to hold onto your child and never let them go against allowing them to soar and achieve what only you knew they could.
This parallels to Nemo, who is now stuck in a dentist’s office in Sydney after being captured. He is introduced to the group of other fish inhabiting the tank and instantly catches the eye of Gill (Willem Dafoe), a fish who was from the ocean, but ended up in this tank after a similar experience to Nemo’s. Gill becomes a sort of surrogate father to Nemo and embodies everything Marlin isn’t. Upon his arrival, Gill realizes that Nemo has the dimensions to fit into the water filter, which would allow them to clog it and dirty the tank in a plot to escape. Where Marlin walks with caution, Gill instills a more reckless and loose approach to his mentorship of the young fish, and on first attempt, it fails.
In this moment, Gill realizes the pitfalls of just letting go and never restricting a child, and the remorse consumes him. But Nemo also shows the resilience of children and re-attempts the plan — succeeding this time and defying his own expectations for himself.
Maybe this resonated more because I just sat through a news cycle that included a two-year-old child being dragged into the water by an alligator, but the message of parenting in Finding Nemo may be unparalleled in cinema. The film is more interested in attaining empathy rather than saying one method is better than the other. The sermon is about understanding the unpredictability of being in charge of another life and coming to terms with what you have to do — whether that is let go in some moments or hold tight.
There isn’t a right or wrong way — unless you choose to stake your claim into one or the other — and the gift of parenthood is riding the waves like a sea captain and hoping you make the right calls.
Finding Nemo may not sit in the annals of Pixar as one of their top tier works, but the reason it resonated with so many people is this central message of parenthood and responsibility. It is something we all struggle with — whether we have kids or not — and Nemo accentuated that better than a lot of other films.
Much like other Pixar films, the key was seeing ourselves in the animated work rather than just feeding us information we desired. Finding Nemo is an exploration and a challenge, both cinematically and tonally, and that essence of cinema is an unmatched tandem.