How did a story featuring computer animated fish become one of the highest grossing films of 2003? Imagination and a great story helped Finding Nemo to the top of the box office. For me, it is also one of the best films of the 2000s.
At its core, Finding Nemo is about a father’s journey to save his son. Marlin, the unfunny clownfish, travels to Sydney Harbour with the help of Dory, the blue tang, to rescue Nemo who has been kidnapped from their home on a reef by a diver. Along the way, Marlin learns to take risks and accept his son’s independence.
Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) and Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) are the trope of the mismatched buddies who spar with one another. Dory is the eternal optimist while Marlin is the pessimist. She may be forgetful like the old joke about the three second memory of the goldfish in a bowl but Dory can also speak whale and read English. Marlin needs her if he’s to stand any chance of crossing the vast distances and completing his search for Nemo.
Along the way, the duo encounter many of the inhabitants of the oceans, often re-imagined in humorous and clever ways. There’s the sharks at their 12-step meeting with their mantra that ‘fish are friends, not food.’ The turtles who surf the currents. The seagulls who repeat one word incessantly. Expectations are twisted just enough to create characters and phrases that have entered popular culture.
When I watch it now, I see Marlin and Dory’s partnership transform from grudging friendship into a familial bond without a hint of romance between the pair. It strikes me as unusual that Finding Nemo concentrates on non-romantic relationships and explores the complexity of love in friendships and family.
The computer animation has lost none of its beauty and is used to create an underwater world that is a kaleidoscope of colour. This may not be a realistic portrait of life in the oceans as shown by Blue Planet. Certain shapes have been amplified and caricatured in this blue-ish deep to create these characters. Everything is lit by this unnatural and gorgeous brightness.
The light and the colour palette act as part of the counterbalance to the bleakness of the narrative. Make no mistake, Finding Nemo touches on murder, kidnapping, sadness, grief and despair. All that and the script works in messages about fishing, conservation and animal cruelty. In another form, this film might have been a relentless assault on the emotions. It still is, in places, but it is made bearable by the storytelling. Really, it is that good. The script is witty without being cynical and packs a lot into a lean 90 minutes. There are the Easter eggs that reference other Pixar films and nods to Psycho, Terminator, The Shining and Taxi Driver.
Finding Nemo was Pixar’s follow up to Monsters Inc and I’d argue that it confirmed the studios as a rising creative force that would come to set a new standard of animation for children and families. It can also be interpreted as a sign of the complex storytelling that was to come: The Incredibles, Up, Inside Out, and Toy Story 3. Finding Nemo won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature and in 2016, the sequel, Finding Dory, was released. But, Nemo’s legacy has not been without controversy. Its success may have contributed to the popularity of tropical fish as pets and their removal from their natural habitats to meet the demand. It’s a reminder that creative works can be interpreted in ways that the creators may never have intended.
Finding Nemo as a multi-layered story that isn’t just about a father’s journey to rescue his son. It is about the families we make for ourselves. It is a story about accepting change without losing hope. Heartfelt and imaginative, Finding Nemo has not aged one bit. It is timeless film-making that can appeal to anyone on dry land or beyond the sea.