Finding Nemo Is the Saddest Story Ever

Op-Ed: Finding Nemo Is the Saddest Story Ever

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.


“Guess what – I’m a physical manifestation of my depressed father’s debilitating grief!”

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.”


One of the most depressing relationships ever.

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 remain 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]


Don’t worry – Squishy’s still real. Probably.

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.

~ Søren

  • Håvard Bamle

    I already like the movie, but I think, somehow I will enjoy it even more now.

    • http://moviefail.wordpress.com kimonoko

      I’m glad you got something out of this, and thanks for reading!

  • glen sutton

    I think you were making an attempt to be very creative in approaching it in this way, but unless Marlin is so delusional as to create an entire world of life around and beyond his immediate periphery (an exhausting task I am sure), then the interactions of the other characters denies your analysis.

    Granted, “Finding No One” could still fit as an appropriate interpretation of the title, but reflecting the concept that Marlin never really needed to search for or find anyone but himself, or at least his own inner-strength and faith in others. Those that needed him, loved him, and relied on him were there the whole time (Nemo), he just needed to see past his own blinding neurotic fear to notice. So in that context, yes, he was “Finding No One.” But I posit that he was also finding more than that, he found a friend in Dory, the turtles, the whale, the various birds and crabs and others along the way that helped him.

    I think the film was more about hope, and breaking through fear to rediscover one’s inner-strength, and growth and healing after a devastating loss. Marlin’s journey was more about coming to terms with his loss, his self-perceived weakness, and the reliability of others in order to secure the safe return, and safety of his son, while realizing that in order to be truly free and safe, Nemo would have to learn to live life out from under his father’s shadow and protective arm/fin.

    That’s my take anyway.

    • http://moviefail.wordpress.com kimonoko

      Thank you so much for reading, and for your thoughtful commentary! I just wanted to clarify this theory doesn’t preclude the idea that Dory and other creatures that Marlin meets along the way are real; the only character who isn’t, according to this post, is Nemo. Rather, these other characters are helping him come to grips with his loss and move on from the tragedy.

      In any case, I believe I stated somewhere that this is just a personal thing I use to keep Finding Nemo relevant to my interests as I get older. Nevertheless, I’m sure that we can all agree that the root message is about hope and overcoming fear and loss, as you said. Whether you choose to also accept this crackpot theory or not is just icing on the cake! Again, I appreciate the time you took to stop by.

  • A Guy

    I think you’re on to something! I was in Latin class a couple days ago, and I was reintroduced to the word “nēmō.” The word looked familiar, and I then remembered the movie. I then hypothesized the same theory you state here. I too thought that Nemo being the only egg to survive was very odd and that he must be a coping mechanism happening inside Martin to give him hope. It’s pretty dark actually for a children’s movie.

    I try to be as realistic as possible and don’t believe theories. However, the fact that I came up with this on my own and several other people state the same thing all across the internet leads me to believe this may actually be a deeper, intentional plot line.

    • http://moviefail.wordpress.com Søren Hough

      Thanks for reading! I’m glad the theory resonated with you. Personally, I actually doubt this “theory” is accurate to the intention of the filmmakers (although who knows?). But as I mentioned elsewhere, it gives the movie a layer of depth I find necessary to keep enjoying the movie on repeat viewings.

  • Beija Ruiz

    Even though i too can see that you really are onto something, i must say i think it would be excruciatingly tiring for a mind to create scenarios outside of its own ranges. Take the dentist’s office for example. Some may think that maybe he just imagined it all, even though i think it had a lot of that ‘Marlin rediscovering his purpose and inner strength” thing going on, it also centered around the fishes that were in the tank and it doesn’t seem to add up with this theory completely. Other than that i believe most of this fits with what it is portrayed on the film and firmly believe Marlin was delusional and trying to find himself among other things.
    “Finding Nemo” is still a Gem though.
    Kudos for your analysis.

  • http://moviefail.com/ kimonoko

    Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. The mind has a weird way of rationalizing things, and I guess this just how tried to make new sense of the film.

  • Candy

    Or… this could have just been one messed up dream that Marlin dreamt of the day after his ENTIRE FAMILY was eaten. He wasn’t completely delusional, maybe subconsciously delusional. Then after this dream he wakes up and has an adventure of his, I mean, HER own. I enjoyed reading about this and I swear, this theory is much more acceptable than reading the “Dirty” truth about this movie.
    Great job. :)

    • http://moviefail.com/ kimonoko

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I like your take, too! The fun thing about fan theories is they tend to be wild and silly enough that any combination will do. What’s fascinating about them is how they add new layers or spin to the original story.

  • Nemo

    As soon as I learned what the word Nemo meant in latin, I put my head down and held it in my hands as I then realised what this movie actually meant. Glad to see others think the same and to see it expressed so well. Sad day here.

    • http://moviefail.com/ kimonoko

      I know that feeling, friend. Rest easy knowing you’re not the only one.

  • Boooga

    Yep, just stumbled across this. Very sad. But made me appriciate the movie even more. I love pixar.


  • http://strongbutgentle.deviantart.com/ Meredith

    I was convinced of this, especially with the name Nemo meaning “nobody” in Latin, until I remembered one thing…Coral originally thought of naming one of the fish Nemo because she liked the name. It was her who thought of it, not Marlin. I don’t know if that tells you anything, but it just neutralized all of this for me.

    • http://moviefail.com/ kimonoko

      You make a great point. But as I’ve said, I wrote this piece and even I don’t buy it. I just think the movie gains interesting subtext through this lens, even if it’s not really what’s going on. And when Finding Dory hits, I’m sure this whole piece will make little to no sense. But for now, it helps me appreciate the film more than I did before – and that’s really all I was going for.

  • scorpioc

    Except they are working on Finding Nemo 2 right now… with nemo in it. So how crazy would these fish have to be?

    • http://moviefail.com/ kimonoko

      This was written back in 2012. In light of that announcement, I mentioned in a few other comments that Finding Dory will likely negate whatever slim chance there was that this theory held water (ha!).

      • scorpioc

        Oh I see im just late lol great read though

  • P.Holz

    Actually I came across with something really similiar when I thought about the movie. I also think that there are some other hints, when reading it trough this lense, that make this theory quite conclusive. So if I remember correctly at the Dentist is a fishlady, with schizophrenic disease, whos talking to her very own mirrored image. This perfectly symbolizes that the Nemo sequence is a mirroring of the Marlin-Storyline, since both water tank and the odyssey of Marlin share a lot of characterists. So we see once the outwards experience of Marlin and the inner prosseses (Nemo-sequence) that are working while he is approaching the journey. Also I imagined the scene with the deep water-dwellig Anglerfish maybe be a first confrontation with death. It was a somehow more excessive, more terrifying reapperence of the Bermuda – hence what Marlin knows as the face of death. He also shares some characteristic with traditional depictions of the Grim Reaper. So here’s my reading of it: Nemo being captured by the divers is a traumatical re-enactment of the loss, but because Marlin cannot finaly face it, there appears a possible place where Nemo is captured, which materialises in a short adress text (A troughout religious event, by all characteristics). But this text falls in deep waters, eventually on the face of a materialization of death in the flesh. So far, It all makes sense to me, I think i will watch it once again and write something about it.

  • P.Holz

    Interestingly enough the movie share similarities to One Flew Over the Cocoo’s Nest, maybe hinting that Marlin is psychologically unstable.