Finding Nemo at 20: Disney’s Greatest Trauma Revisited

Movies Features Pixar
Finding Nemo at 20: Disney’s Greatest Trauma Revisited

Disney is the place where dreams come true, and where childhood trauma takes root. Bambi’s mother, gunned down by an unseen hunter in Bambi; Dr. Facilier, yanked all the way to hell by gleeful spirits in The Princess and the Frog; the Walrus chowing down on terrified baby oysters in Alice in Wonderland; Madam Mim’s game of peek-a-pig-a-boo in The Sword in the Stone; every second of Chernabog’s screen time in Fantasia. Write your own list of five, and you’ll still only cover half of Disney’s greatest traumas, and still none of them will measure up to the dread of Finding Nemo’s opening minutes.

Andrew Stanton’s oceanographic drama about a papa clownfish, Marlin (Albert Brooks), darting over reef and surf to find his missing son, Nemo (Alexander Gould), enjoys a spot at the top of Pixar’s body of work 20 years after its initial release; if the film’s visual splendor doesn’t get you, then the grounded and improbably human expression of parent-child dynamics, and particularly its grasp of fatherly anxiety, will. But Finding Nemo’s legacy is better defined by its curtain-raising scene’s efficacy as disaster horror. 

In a Disney and Pixar context, there’s nothing unique about this sequence, where a voracious barracuda knocks Marlin unconscious, then devours Coral (Elizabeth Perkins), and their batch of incubating children off-screen. The studio’s proficiency with orchestrating tragedy in the middle of wonder has been built over decades; a fish eating other fish is par for their long-established course. But Finding Nemo has something going for it that similarly upsetting sequences in other Disney-Pixar movies don’t: The audience’s existential awareness that something like this could happen to them, too, a lesson the September 11th attacks taught us all just two years prior to the film’s premiere. One minute, life is sweet. The next, all your hopes and best-laid plans are turned to ruin. 

Finding Nemo isn’t a 9/11 movie in a direct sense. Stanton and his team didn’t set out to make a cartoon about fish where nature’s cruel amorality is a metaphor for terrorism. The beginning of its production predated the attacks by about four years, while its theatrical release was far enough after the fact to avoid any appearance of capitalizing on the event. But there’s a subconscious relationship between what happens to Coral, and the eggs, and Marlin, and what happened on the day of the attacks, and how the day pierced our collective consciousness like a tick on the skin. 9/11 changed us all, some for the better, some for the worse.

In 2000s-era cinema terms, 9/11 might have put you in a Boromir state of mind: Eager for martial retribution against your enemies, but easily deceived into harming your friends, as that character does in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’s final act. But you might also have been more like a Marlin: Twitchy, anxious, hovering over your kids like a Black Hawk, but with an endless payload of rules and fussy proscriptions instead of .50 caliber machine gun rounds. Finding Nemo lets us see who Marlin was before the barracuda, so we can appreciate who he becomes by the time Nemo is ready to attend school. His self-assuredness in his brief moment with Coral – proud and swaggering without being off-putting, brimming with joy for what the future holds – is a loss unto itself. The Marlin we see at the start of the film wouldn’t fuss over Nemo’s bum fin. 

The Marlin we get to know instead is, of course, a neurotic mess who can’t shut up about his son’s handicap, or using it as a crutch for his own handicap – the PTSD that’s dogged him since Coral’s death. That plot point could’ve been even more harrowing than what’s in the finished movie; originally, the ordeal was split up as a flashback intercut through the story’s present-tense, and also included Coral screaming as the barracuda eats her. Stanton wisely chose to keep the sequence whole, which lets audiences better respond to Marlin’s mania over Nemo’s safety. Yes, Marlin is grating, and yes, his parenting philosophy is partly responsible for Nemo’s abduction by scuba divers; if Marlin just let Nemo test out his boundaries and limits, he’d never have tried to touch a speedboat on a dare. But, grating as he is, he’s just a parent, terrified at losing one more thing when he’s already lost so much. 

Stanton’s screenplay, co-authored by Bob Peterson and David Reynolds, invites us to keep in mind the latter while we’re watching the former. Finding Nemo is an exercise in sympathy for overprotective fatherhood born out of the most horrific circumstances imaginable; even when he’s acting like the biggest asshole in the ocean, Marlin is still a victim, a fish whose worst day is so far beyond our own that it defies imagination. What the film avoids doing is excusing his less flattering quirks and behavior, like his brusqueness and rudeness toward other seafaring creatures, particularly Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a blue tang with memory issues. There’s a reason Marlin is the way he is, but that reason underscores why it’s so important for him to outgrow his trauma: Nemo needs a dad, not an antisocial nervous wreck.

That’s what Finding Nemo has to say about us, too – then and now. The healing Marlin finds in the movie’s climax is the same kind of healing we all needed after 9/11, and which we’re in need of today, in the wake of widespread societal traumas, too many to name. The movies – Disney’s and Pixar’s, anyhow – haven’t caught up. Partly, this is symptomatic of how both studios conceive their kids movies: Broadly free of actual villains, replaced by emotional antagonists like familial reconciliation or the need for one last hug. “Soft” is too harsh a word for these films, but suffice to say that they let their audience down by keeping them from facing anything parents might deem too dark or too close to home. 

But the greater reason for the lag-time, perhaps, is that we haven’t received that healing yet, the necessary alleviating giddyup to let us ride beyond the Russian nesting doll of scandals, imbroglios, state-sanctioned violence, and overseas wars weighing down our national psyche. We’re still in search of justice and catharsis, and the institutions capable of providing both are dragging their feet. They, too, might catch up one day, though likely not any time soon. When that happens, maybe Disney or Pixar will produce a film to outmatch the sheer terror of Finding Nemo’s first scene. Until then, we’re all just eggs in the barracuda’s mouth.

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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