We all want to belong to someone somewhere.
It’s a natural part of the human condition, a damn near unassailable imperative, but figuring out how to make that belonging work isn’t as simple as it looks.
Take Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould) and his over-protective dad Marlin (Albert Brooks) – years after the death of his wife Coral (Elizabeth Perkins) and most of his first brood of youngsters of which Nemo is the sole survivor, Marlin continues to shield his son from everything, including the good things in life.
Heading off with bubbling excitement to his first day of school, where all kinds of learning, with Mr. Ray (John Peterson) his manta ray teacher, and friendship awaits, Nemo finds himself shepherded in the worst helicopter parent kind of way by his dad who figures that if he can keep his son safe from threats, real but mostly imagined, that life will work out fine for both of them.
But Nemo, like any young kid who doesn’t understand the full scope of his parent’s grief or loss – and how could he? He’s a child for crying out loud – is chafing under the restrictions imposed by Marlin, desperate to be one of the gang which is made of butterfly fish fingerling Tad (Jordy Ranft), flapjack octopus Pearl (Erica Beck) and seahorse Sheldon (Erik Per Sullivan), and subsequently going to great lengths to prove his father’s fears are unfounded.
By, of course, and there would be no narrative without this, absolutely confirming that all his father’s fears were well-founded.
Well, not really, because Marlin had become so fearful of life itself that much of his paranoia came from places within than without, but certainly Nemo’s decision to swim out and touch the boat (the kids amusingly call it a “butt”) with divers who abduct him, underscoring that there is much to be afraid of in the great wide world that awaits beyond the safe little places we all carve for ourselves in life.
But Nemo’s abduction, while terrifying for Marlin, and understandably so since his son is all he has left, sets in train a whole series of events, some serious, most thigh-slappingly funny that cumulatively reinforce the idea that while life can be scary, it’s only by confronting those fears, by leaping headfirst from our safety zones, that we really come alive.
Great life lesson sure, but as he desperately barrels after the boat in which his son is being carried away, his anguish palpable and devastatingly real, it’s the last thing Marlin is worrying about.
All he wants to do is get his son, and when that fails, to do whatever it takes to track him down by whatever means possible.
On his ceaseless quest to get to find “P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney NSW”, which is written on a mask that happily, and rather handily, falls out of the boat, Marlin has to not only confront a whole host of fears, but trust other creatures he doesn’t know, let alone trust, to bring his son back to him.
Chief among them is lovable, goody Regal blue tang Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), who suffers from extreme short-term memory loss, resulting in frustration for Marlin but endless amounts of amusement for everyone else.
What stops Dory, who is so oblivious to so many of the dynamics unfolding around him, from coming to grief on so many occasions is her willingness to just dive on into any situation; sure, it’s driven by an inability to fully comprehend what awaits her, whether it’s joining 12 Step Program sharks led by Bruce (Barry Humphries) who have sworn off fish or playing in the East Australian Current with the turtles, led by Crush (Andrew Stanton) who rescue her and Marlin after a jellyfish swarm near-miss but it teaches Marlin a lesson – that sometimes you have to take a great big leap of out that tightly-circumscribed comfort zone of yours if anything, anything at all, good or bad, is going to happen in life.
It’s not a foolproof approach to life and it almost ends up costing them all kinds of life-ending grief, but by and large it works for them, and after all kinds of threats and solutions have played their part and the duo have reached Sydney and found Nemo, Marlin realises that a certain amount of risk is integral to a well-lived life.
That’s a lot of deeply thought-out life philosophy in one Pixar film, but the animation house has proven time and again, in films released both before and after Finding Nemo – Up and Toy Story (all of them) spring to mind most readily – that it be astoundingly introspective and serious, and yet make a brilliantly-entertaining movie.
Much of that comes to the artfully-constructed characters who all come with a particular kind of emotional resonance.
Even the inhabitants of the tank in the dental surgery in which Nemo finds himself – Moorish idol fish Gill (Willem Dafoe), starfish Peach (Allison Janney), Yellow tang fish Bubbles (Stephen Root), Royal Gamma fish Gurgle (Austin Pendleton), Striped Damselfish Deb/Flo (Vicki Lewis) and Cleaner Shrimp Jacques (Joe Ranft) – who are all kinds of daffy silliness (Jacques’ line “I am ashamed” when he un-self consciously begins to clean off the algae build-up that could save them, and is caught out, all is a gem) are also deeply touching in their own way.
They embrace Nemo as one of their own, with Peach especially taking on the mothering role of which Nemo has no real experience, and help him reunite with Marlin, even at the risk of continuing to be trapped in the tank themselves.
Each of them are damaged in their own way by their captivity – you’ll notice that Pixar rarely leaves anyone behind, with salvation of some kind coming to everyone unjustly imprisoned, even the unlovable ones – but nevertheless, together with Nigel the pelican (Geoffrey Rush), they nurture Nemo and help get back to the one person with whom he belongs, his dad Marlin.
It’s a thousand kind of affecting, and deeply real in a way that many non-animated films fail to be, and it grabs at your heart even as each and every character gets their moment to be goofy, whimsical or just plain hilarious.
The humour, which is liberally sprinkled through Finding Nemo works brilliantly precisely so much of it is embedded into affectingly-true emotional groundedness, a reminder that any humour worth its quip-laden punchline must come out of a real place, lived in by characters who matter to us.
Pixar understands this at a creative bedrock level, and it’s rare for the animators there to forget that their films only connect with people because we can see, even in a story about a father and son clownfish, and their new friend Dory, something of our own lives, of our intrinsic need to belong and the unsettling, near-frightening disquiet when we don’t.
Comically inspired and gorgeously animated in all the colours of the rainbow and with a visual realism that is never less than breathtakingly stunning, Finding Nemo is a timeless gem that reaffirms every step of the way that our need to belong is paramount but that it only makes sense when we’re allowed to be ourselves, when we’re willing to take risks and when life, scary and messily uncertain though it is, can be lived on its own terms (without eating any fish, naturally).