Connect with us


Finding Nemo: Pixar’s Quiet Masterpiece

Of all the feature films in Pixar’s impressive repertoire, Finding Nemo has arguably proven the most durable.

Ted Pigeon



Finding Nemo
Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

Of all the feature films in Pixar’s impressive repertoire, Finding Nemo has arguably proven the most durable. The movie, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last month, is held in high favor critically and with audiences, but to some extent it’s also underappreciated, commonly regarded as an admirable, stalwart entry from the animation house. And yet, though it’s not a film that’s inspired the kind of rapturous following that The Incredibles or WALL-E have cultivated, Finding Nemo remains the heart and soul of the Pixar family of movies. It showcases a number of hallmarks for which the studio has become renowned, such as stunning technical bravura and smoothly elegant storytelling. But what distinguishes Finding Nemo from its studio brethren—and what makes it Pixar’s enduring classic to date—is its narrative accessibility and emotional directness.

At the time of its release, Finding Nemo was primarily heralded for its unparalleled pictorial beauty. Digital animation was still somewhat fresh at the time; just two years before, Shrek had introduced brand new possibilities in digital animation with its crisply rendered environments and characters that had scale and weight. Finding Nemo, by turn, was possibly the first full realization of those possibilities. I still remember seeing it in the theater and feeling completely engulfed by the colors, layers, and textures of the underwater world it fashions. Ten years later, the film still exudes an ethereal quality that’s seldom seen in today’s animation (which is a credit, also, to the deep musical and overall soundscape). But the abounding detail of the film’s visual design, from the scales on Nemo’s body to the speckles dancing in the foreground and background of every frame, is all the more astounding for how subtly it’s deployed.

But let’s set aside Finding Nemo’s aesthetic marvels for a moment. Perhaps it’s understandable how so many remembrances of the film have concentrated more on its look and feel rather than the reach of its story, because the story itself is pretty plain: An overprotective father loses his son and must quest across the sea to get him back. Nothing too demanding, but the film gradually peels back this conceit and reveals a latent, almost primal depth about it. To lose a child is every parent’s worst fear. Likewise, to be lost in an unknown world is every child’s worst fear. Director Andrew Stanton, who also conceived the story, could easily have overcomplicated this dynamic, but instead he keeps the film’s emotional palate simple and focused. This strategy allows the film’s humanity to materialize through the scores of characters and environments that Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould) and his father Marlin (Albert Brooks) confront.

Stanton sets the table with a prologue that economically establishes the emotional stakes, as well as the respective worldviews of both Nemo and Marlin. The sequence sees Marlin and his wife settling into a new home. Watching over their eggs, the two jibe casually about their future—their voices replete with hope and insecurity. Their exchange is cut short, though, when a violent encounter with a barracuda leaves Marlin shocked and alone. In a remarkable wide shot, Marlin floats still among the quiet currents of the gray, moonlit ocean. The next shot, a close-up as he begins to weep, is an intimate image of sorrow that eclipses the context of comforting family entertainment and the faux-serious standards of modern animated films. Then, as Marlin notices a single remaining egg, a glimmer of hope is understatedly expressed through a combination of stirring voice work from Brooks and Thomas Newman’s delicate score.

This sequence effectively encapsulates the anguish and hope through which the movie’s ensuing odyssey takes you. While there’s never a doubt in mind how the proceedings will resolve (Nemo’s eventual capture and rescue are, after all, a foregone conclusion), Finding Nemo is more about how the journey unfolds. Once Marlin sets off into unknown waters in search of Nemo, the film essentially becomes a series of episodic encounters, featuring new characters and environments, each more vivid and delightful than the ones that came before. Marlin’s journey takes him through a dangerous jellyfish forest (strikingly first entering the frame as a cloudy purple haze) to the East Australian current, where he meets a free spirit sea turtle named Crush (voiced by Stanton in surfer-dude mode).

The film also gets an additional push with its intercutting of Marlin’s exploits with those of Nemo, who finds himself captive in a dentist’s aquarium in Sydney. There he meets a colorful band of fish (voiced by Willem Dafoe, Allison Janney, Stephen Root, Brad Garrett, among others) that together plans a jailbreak from the tank. But Marlin’s story is the more emotionally rounded of the two, due in part to Brooks’s keen voice work. Marlin is an intensely cynical protagonist. Most of the time, he appears visibly irritated and has a tendency to berate those around him, even when they offer help. Nevertheless, Brooks attributes Marlin with an earnest demeanor, which is no easy task for a character that’s lost faith in the world around him. Somewhere under all the curmudgeonly insults and negative projections is a fish that wants to be better, and Brooks teases this out over the course of the film. Marlin’s character may be a bit too structured, but when he watches Nemo ride off to school into the end credits, the weathered, confident love in Brooks’s voice is undeniable.

However, despite giving one of the finest voice performances in an animated film, Brooks is overshadowed by another performance; which in itself is somewhat emblematic of Finding Nemo’s surplus of treasures. The real star of the film is Ellen DeGeneres, who voices the forgetful fish with a heart of gold named Dory that becomes Marlin’s companion. Dory’s resolute cheer is the perfect contrast to Marlin’s world-weariness, but DeGeneres lends more depth to Dory than first might appear. Dory has a past that appears equally tragic as Marlin’s, and DeGeneres’s delivery is vulnerable enough to imbue her determined optimism with even more affection. While the oppositional relationship of Nemo and Marlin is based on a long-standing connection born out of hardship, the dynamic of Marlin and Dory has more to do with worldview. And since Nemo and Marlin spend most of the film apart, the ripe contrast between Dory and Marlin becomes the main the crux of film. The tension between them comes to a head best in a key scene when the two stumble across a blue whale, when Dory’s insistence on “speaking whale” to communicate with the beast is met by exasperation from Marlin. He lashes out on her, only to realize that he has no choice but to yield.

It’s worth pointing out that Marlin accepts Dory’s unwavering support only because he has no alternative. Despite his pronounced flaws, Marlin has good reason not to trust anyone and to think the world is against him. To Stanton’s credit, the movie doesn’t shy from the idea that the world can be a frightening and lonely place. But the real emotional core of Finding Nemo stems from how Dory’s genuine goodness forces Marlin to accept the certainty that no task—regardless of personal meaning—can be truly achieved alone. This is never explicitly stated (and the film is all the richer for it), but it’s a no less touching rendition of an underlying theme that runs through much of Pixar’s work, from Toy Story to Brave: Understanding another person is hard work and sometimes requires us to sacrifice our own tendencies and views, which in turn allows us to more fully understand ourselves.

Pixar films are marked by a deep sense of humanism, and Finding Nemo represents the pristine iteration of that motif. It plumbs the feelings of hope and loss that personify the characters’ struggles and interactions in the most benign ways and through an unending list of charms. The vast number of memorable bits and one-scene characters is in itself fairly astounding: the trio of sharks attempting to reform their carnivorous ways; the opportunist crabs who repeatedly belt out “Hey!” with more humor than the word is worth; the performing school of fish; and, yes, the unfriendly sea gulls who, unlike every other fish and animal in the film, cannot speak. These moments give Finding Nemo a consistent dose of comedy, but strung together they offer a series of snippets of life in the big world, where everyone marches to their own beat to get by. In a strange way, this dovetails perfectly with the underlying feelings of the film’s thematic center.

Not all of the film’s touches are successful; some of the cute self-referential bits don’t work, and the subplot involving the dentist’s niece (with frantic passages of Bernard Herrmann’s famous Psycho music accompanying her every demonic move) also jars with the film’s tone. But these are minor quibbles. More importantly, Finding Nemo minimizes what has become one the biggest knocks against Pixar films, which is the rigorous schematic design of the storytelling. The studio’s movies are usually such well oiled and effective machines that their inner workings are sometimes all too apparent. Finding Nemo is no less structured than other Pixar films, but it thrives on how gracefully it articulates the base feelings at its foundation. This isn’t a film of swelling emotional statements or grand moments. Instead it appeals to more fundamental anxieties and hopes, operating fluidly and without ever trying too hard to impress. The same goes for the movie’s “message,” which is delivered with sensitivity and without bludgeoning, thus deepening its root wisdom.

The world can be a scary place, but equally crushing is the discovery that it’s also largely indifferent to our pain. This is the existential crisis at the heart of Finding Nemo that causes it to resonate so powerfully. The movie doesn’t necessarily refute Marlin’s assertion that the world is fundamentally dangerous, but what it offers is much more subtle. One need only observe Nemo’s wide-eyed wonder as he glides about a reef on his first day of school, taking in the simple, profound marvels around him. Moments like this are scattered throughout Finding Nemo and personify its spirit. While the film’s happy ending is a structural necessity, it doesn’t wipe away the heartache of getting there, which is perhaps why it feels more earned. The world may be filled with suffering and darkness, but it’s also teeming with immense, unexplainable beauty. That we aren’t always in control of our own lives is a hard lesson to swallow, particularly when we work so hard to make the world more manageable and less painful for those we love. But sometimes we have to willingly cede control in order to see that help has been there all along. And if we’re lucky, it also speaks whale.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.