Finding Nemo opened in theaters on May 30, 2003, and to this day, it remains Pixar’s most financially successful film ever when adjusted for inflation.
The reasons for this are numerous. Finding Nemo happens to be one of Pixar’s more hilarious films, if not the funniest. Its animated ocean world is a stunner, even by today’s technological standards. The characters are all memorable, despite there being so many competing for attention. And most importantly, the film’s core message about parenting is perfectly argued and communicated.
Every scene, every character, and every joke in Finding Nemo is in service to one fundamental truth that punctuates the entire movie. It’s the definition of superb storytelling, but for years, Finding Nemo has been written off by some as one of Pixar’s less serious films, and wrongfully so.
It might be tempting to consider the messaging in Finding Nemo to be simplistic or basic. Marlin, our main character, has to learn how to become a less overprotective father to his son, Nemo. If this was all Finding Nemo set out to communicate, then it would probably be a far less compelling film and too long, as a result.
Of course, Finding Nemo goes much further than lecturing parents about the ails of sheltering their children. In fact, Finding Nemo contradicts this exact message within the same scene it establishes the stakes. When Nemo stands up to Marlin for not trusting in his ability to make his own choices, Nemo is promptly snatched up by a scuba diver and put into the dangerous situation his father feared for him. In this scene, Marlin’s fears are justified. Perhaps he was right to be overprotective.
There is a bit of mixed messaging in this scene, which is by design. Director Andrew Stanton and his creative team purposefully want you to keep watching in order to find out what lesson this story is really going to tell. We want Marlin to find his son, yes, but on a deeper level, we want to know what he’ll ultimately take away from the experience. And each scene between Marlin and his new friend, Dory, is more than an exciting set piece. Broken down, they’re all parenting lessons for Marlin, with Dory as the avatar for his own son.
Marlin struggles with Dory’s short term memory loss, often “parenting” her and getting frustrated with her shortcomings. But ultimately, he learns to trust in her abilities and accept the risks of uncertainty.
The jellyfish scene in particular is a wonderful commentary on how parents can use games to navigate harrowing times with their children, but they don’t often seen the toll these environments can have on a child by the end of it. Marlin makes a game out of navigating the jellyfish swarm and even has fun with it, but he doesn’t realize until the end that Dory has gotten “damaged” by the ordeal, forcing him to go back for her, demonstrating the physical lengths a parent will go to for their child.
The bulk of Marlin’s arc is realized, of course, when he finally relies on Dory while they’re trapped inside of a whale, his first true step in transferring these lessons onto his son. His inner desire, to keep his son safe, is never compromised by the film’s events. By the end of the story, he’s still driven by the love he has for Nemo, but he’s learned to accept new conditions. These conditions include allowing Nemo to take care of himself, because one day, his father won’t be around to do it for him.
At this point, Finding Nemo is already doing more than the vast majority of films trying to convey truths about the human experience. But it goes one step further by lending equally dramatic weight to Nemo’s journey, parallel to his father’s adventure. For Nemo, the end goal is the same as Marlin’s, but he faces different challenges and circumstances related to overcoming his own physical limitations and general fear of failure.
What drives Nemo is also consistent until the very end. He wants to prove himself and experience all that life has to offer. But he accepts new conditions that mean heeding the advice of his father and placing a stronger priority on his safety, as well as the safety of others.
It’s this complicated layering of dual storylines that allows Finding Nemo to connect at a level that few movies, let alone ones made by Pixar, have achieved. The universal appeal of such a crowd-pleasing story is obvious, because almost everyone can relate with having a parent/guardian, being a child or under someone’s care, or a mix of the two. And rather than present the audience with simplistic answers within the first act, Finding Nemo takes the risk of asking hard questions first and taking the time to explore solutions by example and allegory over the course of a thrilling odyssey, until the conclusion leaves the audience with a sense of wonder, not just at the gorgeous world they’ve just stepped into, but also in the meaningful experience they’ve shared with a filmmaker.