Love, Limits, and the Swirly Vortex of Terror
Finding Nemo is Pixar’s latest CGI marvel. Like Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Monster’s Inc., it features amazing animation, great characters (and perfectly matched celeb voices), sharp wit, smart humor, and a story both timeless and timely. But while it’s about fathers and sons, love and limits, discoveries of the world and self, the film is also flush with traumas and tragedies: dead mommies and kidnappings, despair and impending doom. At 34, I was a smidge stressed; at four, I probably would have been crying.
Finding Nemo follows the “adventures” of clown fish and single father Marlin (Albert Brooks in all his neurotic glory), who is overprotective of his only son, Nemo (Alexander Gould). You can’t really blame him: in the opening scene, his wife (Elizabeth Perkins) and the other few hundred eggs that would have been Nemo’s sibs are wiped out by a truly scary looking, sharp-toothed fish on the first day they’ve moved to new digs in the Great Barrier Reef. Finding the lone remaining egg, Marlin swears, “I promise I’ll never let anything happen to you.”
Cut to a few fish-years later and Marlin has delivered on his promise: he doesn’t let anything happen to Nemo, good or otherwise. His #1 lesson has been simple but profound: “The ocean is dangerous.” Nemo understands his dad’s nervous nelly-ness stems from love; nevertheless, he wants to be like all the other kids, going to school and exploring the sea on his own. Marlin also tends to define Nemo by his handicap: one fin is smaller than the other, and so, he’s not a great swimmer. Or so Marlin keeps telling him and anyone else in earshot.
It is from this prohibition that the film’s central trauma emerges: Marlin catches Nemo and his friends playing a risky game of dare, seeing who can swim closest to a boat that’s drifting off in the distance. Marlin humiliates and infuriates Nemo, forbidding him to swim any farther. “I hate you,” Nemo tells his father and then, in that familiar “Don’t-move-one-more-inch-or-you’re-in-big-trouble, mister” game, Nemo swims off defiantly to tap the boat with his fin. No sooner does he make his point, than Marlin’s is made as well: a huge shadowy figure emerges between them, a scuba diver, who swoops little Nemo into a jar and boards the boat with him, while Marlin swims after them, panic-stricken over his son’s kidnapping.
And so the adventure begins: Marlin, the most scaredy-cat fish in the ocean, must become the bravest, facing all the dangers that he knows are out there, breaking all of the limits he set for himself and for Nemo, in order to rescue his son. Everything Marlin is afraid of is, in fact, quite scary, but fortunately, many of the situations he finds himself in offer plenty of comic relief: Marlin begrudgingly teams up with a fish named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), whose lack of short-term memory means she can’t remember from one minute to the next who Marlin is or what they are looking for. Coerced into a “meeting” with a Great White Shark (named Bruce, after the mechanical shark on the Jaws set, and voiced by Barry Humphries) and a few ofhis shark friends, they find themselves briefly part of a 12-step program for sharks who want to go off fish (“Fish are friends, not food”). Then they catch a ride on the EAC (Eastern Australian Current) on the back of a 150-year-old sea turtle named Crush (voiced by director Andrew Stanton).
As the story of Marlin’s search spreads throughout the ocean, he becomes a living legend, with other creatures pitching in to find Nemo. Even Nemo hears about his father’s quest, from where he’s now living in an aquarium in a dentist’s office and awaiting the weekend when he’ll be given away to Darla, the dentist’s niece (a fate tantamount to a death sentence, as the little monster is already a notorious “fish killer”). Hearing of his father’s bravery inspires Nemo to try to make his own escape, aided by his fellow tank fish, scar-faced Gill (Willem Dafoe), blowfish Bloat (Brad Garrett), and the starfish Peach (Allison Janney).
Finding Nemo‘s “messages” for the kids are obvious and simple, as they should be: parents set limits out of love, but they are not infallible; children are not defined by such limitations, but by a limitless capacity to learn and grow; and love conquers all, even (fairly abject) fear. None of this is new, and that’s okay. It is beautifully and effectively told here.
What I find more intriguing is the timeliness of Marlin’s dilemma, raising his child in an ever more dangerous and unpredictable world. During the last year in the U.S., child abductions were sensational headline news; snipers were killing parents and targeting kids; the colors on the “Terror Alert” scale rose and fell and rose again. No measure of protection is good enough anymore, and there is no haven that can shield us from these frighteningly random unknowns, not even our own homes. Parents are obliged to equip our children to navigate this world, no matter how scary, and so we don’t have the option of forbidding them from engaging with it.
The film illustrates this tension between our desire to protect our kids from the dangers of the world and our responsibility for raising them so they can function in that world, by comparing the fathering techniques of Marlin and Crush. In one telling scene, Marlin watches Crush let his kid, Squirt (Nicholas Bird), get whipped off from the relative calm of the EAC into the wildly whipping current. Marlin instantly panics and yells at Crush to go rescue his child. Crush, on the other hand, thinks it best to “see what the little dude does,” and sure enough, Squirt works it out.
It’s not the first time in the film that Marlin learns a thing or two from someone seemingly less smart than he is (Dory’s readings of situations prove to be more accurate than Marlin’s on more than one occasion). That Crush, a stereotype of the half-baked surfer dude, becomes a role model could be attributed to his age and experience, or it might just be because he reads his environment well. The moment marks the difference between seeing the world, regardless of its condition, as a necessary and useful arena for experience and growth, and seeing it the way Marlin sees the current, as a “swirly vortex of terror.” It may be just that, but it’s where we live and we have to teach our kids how to negotiate those dangers without filling them with fear.