When you see a Disney film you ask, “Who’s it about?” And if you’ve seen enough of them you don’t even have to ask. You can sing right along. But with a Pixar film you ask, “What’s the theme?” and that’s their special brilliance. If the theme of Finding Nemo had been as it appears to be, what a parent will do for their child, it wouldn’t have been anything particularly special. Home Alone covered that already. Finding Nemo strikes the heart because it’s about what parents want to do, but can’t.
Finding Nemo opens with a heartbreaker as new clownfish daddy to a thousand babies loses them all to a barracuda, long-necked and fanged. The knife twists when his wife, Corral (Elizabeth Perkins), dies protecting them. A glimmer in the silt reveals a single, hopeful little egg left, scraped down the side. “I promise,” he says, all grown out of his playfulness, “I will never let anything happen to you. Nemo.”
Albert Brooks plays Marlin, that father who tries to keep his promise. His gimpy-finned son Nemo (Alexander Gould) tries to prove he doesn’t need his father’s protection by taking a dare and swimming off the reef to a fishing boat. When he’s caught and taken to the fish tank of a dentist’s office in Sydney, Australia, Finding Nemo splits into two worlds. The first is in the sterile office with its beaming white linoleum and worldly consumerist commentary. The second is in the gulf of ocean between a father and his son. With such great fear the life-doubting Marlin had tried to navigate a normal social life as a parent in an average town. But it’s without another thought that he invites the broiling dystopia of dangers in the far off foreign lands of the ocean depths, for a chance to save his son.
Finding Nemo could have been continuously about Marlin’s wife dying. His weary, life-worn conscience could have recounted the story and sang that litany, even dredging it up in flashback. But what happened is vastly less significant than what it means to him and Pixar knows this. When he and oblivious tour guide Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) are trapped in a whale’s mouth, he has a moment of terrifying release. What if I can’t get out of here? This is the form his fear takes, because this is how Pixar has demonstrated it in the plot. But his real fear is something deep and primal. What if I fail as a father?
Finding Nemo has a brilliant way of keeping this theme in the shallows of its action, always present but rarely addressed directly in the ecosystem of all its wonderful ocean stuff. The blue tang called Dory floats on a whim, rambling nonsense like a poet of the absurd, every prattling second a potential commercial jingle. “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim …” She follows this babbling with a faux opera on the subject of nothing, Marlin hilariously at wit’s end, tolerating Dory’s verbal assault only because they’re at life’s brink every second. Such incalculable horrors for bite-sized guppies include a trio of affirmative action sharks, an angler seeping in its terrifying depths, a minefield, a jellyfish forest, and on and on. Pixar animates the ocean with such glee that I’m convinced they must have kept grade-schoolers always on call in the design department. They have rendered something as ostensibly familiar as the sea with such a maddening grace, such horrific vibrance, that it seems acrylic. In theaters particularly it seems the very travelogue of wonderment that animation strives to be in the minds of all its participants, a fantasia of visual storytelling that dares to make CGI seem like a good idea.
The second front, and no less effective, is the dentist’s office. Nemo joins a cult of ocean worshippers in the office tank, led by the world-weary Gil (weathered into irony by faux-gruff Willem Dafoe). They’re haunted by a water purifier fan, stalked by the beast of the dentist’s niece, Darla, blank-eyed and mangled by braces. A pelican voiced by the garrulous Geoffrey Rush tells the story of a crazy little clownfish fighting the entire ocean looking for his son. “What was his name …” he says, wing raised, “Tuna? Trout?” “Marlin?!” Nemo coos. He knew the fearful kind of fish his dad was. He also knew his essential dad. He knew it deep in his little fin, that spirit that drags dad out of bed at 3 a.m. to pick you up when your car’s dead. Or that stays up all night waiting for you to get back from prom. Finding Nemo is a somewhat woeful story about a dad playing that part obsessively, but its gentle optimism is in how essential it is for Nemo (and us) that he do so.
Finding Nemo is a romp of that sublime kind that transgresses talky comedy and punched up animated thrills. As impossible as it would be in any other medium, Pixar may have made the most crucial of all its animated tales, if not the best. To the declaimers of happily ever after storytelling, Finding Nemo responds not with flawed characters, but with the limitations of perfectly endearing ones. If Dory overreaches or if the Pixar formula starts to predict its own verve, nothing stops the vibrant locomotion of this jazz solo of color and light, as indispensable as the great American comedies and as warm as a sunset on the sea.
Image is a screenshot from the film.