When Finding Nemo was released in 2003, a ten-year-old version of me thought it was a wonderfully funny little film. Even back then I was always looking for things to complain about and I remember telling my mother that the movie had suffered because trailers had spoiled many of the best gags. However, I know that I enjoyed myself anyway and came away from the theater more than content with Pixar’s fifth feature-length film. And for a long time afterward, I held that Finding Nemo is a fun, exciting underwater adventure that very much caters to a younger audience in a harmless, friendly, risk-free way.
It was last year that I finally got a chance to watch Finding Nemo again with a bunch of friends, excited to return to the neurotic clown fish father, Marlin (Albert Brooks), and his ironically memorable friend Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), as he embarks on a journey to locate his lost son. Unfortunately, this time around I was not nearly as enamored with the film, finding the writing to be sub-par by Pixar standards and the plot too linear to hold my attention. It was from this place of general disappointment that I decided to investigate the film from a more existential perpective. This analysis lead to my conclusion that Finding Nemo is more than it seems, with an emotional subtext so sad that it puts the tear-jerking Up to shame.
As we know from the Jules Vernes classic sci-fi Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea(s), the name “Nemo” is actually Latin for “no one.” In that story, Captain Nemo goes by that particular title in order to maintain his anonymity and his seclusion from the land-based civilization of man. However, I believe it is pertinent to carry this translation over to Finding Nemo, transforming the title of the film to “Finding No One.”
Finding No One? Where am I going with this? Here it is, folks: the eponymous character of this children’s animated epic, Nemo, doesn’t actually exist. Finding Nemo is in fact the tale of a psychologically damaged clown fish who must go on a personal journey as he tries to overcome the pain and fear caused by the loss of his family.
Finding Nemo begins with a horrific and traumatizing scene where a barracuda attacks Marlin, his wife, and his eggs. In this opening sequence, we are shown that the only survivors are Marlin himself, and an egg which eventually bears the disabled little fingerling named Nemo. It is at this point that we can assume that Nemo has become the manifestation of Marlin’s general insecurity.
Before Marlin loses his his family, he is an optimistic father who wants only the best for his fry and his wife. He has secured a very desirable home in an “awesome” neighborhood, and he anticipates all of the fun and opportunity his offspring will have once they hatch. When the barracuda comes, however, he is essentially powerless to stop it from devouring the ones he loves, lending to Marlin’s paranoid persona later on in the film
Following the attack, Marlin discovers that neither his children nor his wife, Coral, survived. Nevertheless, he wants badly to have been there as a protector, and so he imagines that the barracuda somehow missed one egg. In honor of his wife’s last wish, and perhaps because subconsciously he is aware that this surviving egg is a figment of his imagination, Marlin names the fish “Nemo.”
The film then proceeds to chronicle Marlin’s growth as he struggles to deal with this mentally scarring event. The audience is shown that Marlin has become extremely overprotective of his “son” and has yielded his hopes and dreams in favor of a paralyzing fear of anything even remotely dangerous. Then, when he loses “Nemo” one day, he sets off on a mission to retrieve his child and ultimately shed his emotional baggage.
On this trip, Marlin meets many characters along the way who help him come to terms with the fact that it is not his fault that his family members lost their lives. The sharks Bruce, Anchor and Chum help him realize even things that appear to be threats may not be threats at all, so worrying about every little possible danger is an exercise in futility. The sea turtles on the Eastern Australia Current help him realize that he cannot and should not be expected to be in control of everything that happens in his life. Dory is particularly interesting for her trademark short-term memory loss; by interacting with someone who can only live moment to moment, Marlin slowly begins to understand that he has held on to the memory of his loved ones for too long. Indeed, he must accept and move past his perceived failures and live his life as Dory does, treating every moment like a brand new day.
At this point, some of you may be asking yourselves “Søren, this is all fine and well – but how do you explain the scenes where Nemo is separated from Marlin? What about the scenes in the dentist’s fish tank?” To this, I must confess my theory runs into slight difficulty. In the end, I think that it is appropriate to attribute these Nemo-centric sequences to the imagination of his father. [SPOILER] Much like in the excellent films Black Swan and Fight Club, entire scenes the audience believes actually took place are in fact all part of the protagonist’s delusions. [/SPOILER]
When the film concludes, Marlin sends his son off to school without any real hesitation – he receives only a warm hug from Nemo before he tells him to “go have an adventure.” This exchange works well as a metaphor to illustrate Marlin’s evolution, having finally let go of his perceived failure and the memory of losing his wife and children. It is as poignant an ending for this troubled father as one could hope for – with a new friend in Dory and better understanding of his own character, Marlin has come a long way from the shell-shocked clown fish at the movie’s opening credits.
Am I reading into this too much? I’ll answer the naysayers straight off: yes, yes I am. I know I am. As I stated at the onset of this op-ed, I came up with my analysis arbitrarily in order to keep the film relevant for an older generation. Even so, I hope this interpretation works for many of you the same way it worked for me and keeps what should be another Pixar gem fresh in your minds.
Thanks for reading! If you have any thoughts about this theory – disagreements, fallacies, affirmations, whatever – please do leave a comment below.