Nothing Fishy about Finding Nemo

The summer of 2003 was largely a wash at the movies. In a vast sea of cinematic mediocrity, there were a few almost greats, like Seabiscuit and Whale Rider, but even I was hard pressed to find any films to wholeheartedly recommend.

The Latest Triumph

But then, a few little fish scurried across the cineplexes of the world causing a tidal wave of critical acclaim and opening oceans of sheer delight for theatergoers. And now, scrawny little Nemo with his deformed fin and neurotic companions has dethroned the mighty Lion King becoming the highest grossing animated movie of all time.

Finding Nemo, released today on video/DVD, is the latest triumph from the amazing artists at Pixar, in collaboration with Disney. Every time this group of people makes a movie they seem to set new standards for the 3-D animation universe. But it is hard to imagine them getting any better visually than they have achieved in Finding Nemo. Set in the undersea splendor of Australias’s Great Barrier reef, nearly every scene is breathtakingly beautiful to look at. The vividly colored and detailed backgrounds race by far too fast as Nemo, his Dad and his friends take us through the story. But although the tableaus are stunning, it is a keynote of Pixar’s that they don’t get self-indulgent showing off what they can do. The artistry always serves the story, which keeps the audience alert and yearning for more.

Finding Nemo introduces us to a clown fish named Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) who is a nervous single father to Nemo (Alexander Gould). The two fish live a very sheltered existence due to Marlin’s fears about the dangers in the wide open sea. At Nemo’s first day of school, Marlin’s worst nightmares come true when his little son is scooped up in a diver’s net. The story unfolds as Marlin sets out across the vast, scary ocean to find his son. Along the way, he meets Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a loving fish with a talent for “reading human” and “speaking whale” and no short-term memory.

Star Quality Writing

Finding Nemo was written and directed by the exceptionally talented Andrew Stanton, whose other credits include Monsters, Inc., Toy Story II and A Bugs Life. As a screenwriter myself, I was in awe at the high level of writing in this project. The jokes are hilarious, the many characters are all well-developed, and the drama moves from sweet to heartbreaking. There are two inter-connected stories in the film, in which both main characters make a believable journey from fear to maturity.

Amazingly for a Disney movie, the child’s story is secondary here. Children tend to be preoccupied with their own fears and needs, and the conventional entertainment industry wisdom is that kids won’t watch a movie without a kid as the main protagonist. It was brave of Finding Nemo to buck this formula and make the kid’s story a sub-plot to the adult’s story. The main emphasis in the film is on Marlin, and his struggle to become a better parent despite his own woundedness.

This is a good message to put out there for kids to brood over. The idea that parents are people too with sadness, fear and suffering might make kids a little less demanding and a little more tender towards their Moms and Dads. In addition, at the end of the tale, when Marlin manages to be the hero his son his needs him to be, kids will find a sense of comfort and security in the parents that they find themselves with. As one young friend expressed it to me, “Maybe my parents aren’t perfect, but they are just right for me.”

Transcends the Formula

Finding Nemo transcends another Disney storytelling formula in its portrayal of evil. Pretty much every other movie has a bad guy — or for Disney, usually a bad gal (what’s that about?) — as a foil for the underdog hero. Finding Nemo takes a much harder road than scapegoating all our anxieties in a Cruella, or a Scar, or a wicked stepmother. The bad guy here is life itself. The evil that Marlin must overcome is the random and reckless turns if nature in a world mostly out of control. The film opens with a devastating tragedy similar to Bambi or The Lion King. This opener shows a profound respect for children by the filmmakers. Children must learn to weather tragedy and sorrow and to protect them from it can deform them into demanding brats who think the whole world should bow to their own needs and desires. To often we shield our kids from life, very much like Marlin shields Nemo. It’s a kind of well-meaning lie that may be easiest for us, but not necessarily best for them.

With a stellar script as its anchor, all the other elements of great movie storytelling also come together to make this project cruise. All the actors are great, but Ellen Degeneres deserves particular kudos for her wonderful, hilarious and humane Dory. The quirky score was written by Tom Newman in his first animated project. Newman has scored dozens of studio dramas like The Green Mile and The Road to Perdition and so brings a completely different sensibility to this project that sets it apart from other Disney pics. There is no catchy little Hakuna Matata here, although there are some wacky and delightful sounding instruments Newman lists as “metal sculptures,” “water” and “fin.”

In the end, 2003 will be a positive year for movies, basically because it hatched Finding Nemo. So don’t be afraid to dive in with your kids, parents and friends. This is a wonderful justification for the positive potential of the art form of our time. Make the most of it.

Barbara Nicolosi teaches screenwriting to aspiring Catholic writers at the acclaimed Act One: Writing for Hollywood. You may email her at [email protected].

(Originally published in LIGUORIAN Magazine, One Liguori Drive, Liguori, MO, 63057.)

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