I’m two movies into this project, and I’ve already learned some things. The first thing I’m learning is to operationalize my terms. I think the type of movie I’m looking for is not just a movie that I want to watch over and over again, but a movie that enters my language and becomes a cultural or personal touchstone or shorthand for a certain feeling or situation.
The second thing I’m learning? This is going to be an emotionally difficult project. The list of potential classics from 2000 to 2009 is bookended by Synecdoche, New York and There Will Be Blood. Along the way, I get to explore such emotionally uplifting topics as the Holocaust, gang violence, serial killers, the Iraq War, and abortion. (Honestly, Hollywood needed a hug for the whole ten years). As a consequence, I am resolved to enjoy the lighter fare, like Finding Nemo, as much as possible.
I first saw Finding Nemo on the big screen in 2003. I’d say that it was about six or eight weeks before I started college. I was about to move out for the first time. Parents, for the most part, were still “grownups” to me. The only person I had ever really known who had died were elderly. I enjoyed Finding Nemo, but I was at the wrong age to realize what a masterpiece it is. And it is a masterpiece.
Pixar’s rich, maybe even overactive, imagination has allowed it to craft incredible environments, showing us the world from the perspective of insects or toys, and holding up a mirror to our own world by populating it with superheroes, cars, or monsters. Finding Nemo takes place in a completely different animated world – our oceans, which are stunningly rendered. It turns the ocean into a fantasy land as beautiful and breathtaking as anything Disney has ever produced. The fish and other animals are created with an attention to detail for the way marine life actually moves. Somehow, the movie just feels right. Nearly every frame in this movie would work as a piece of fine art. I would hang it on my wall.
Finding Nemo follows Marlin. Marlin loses nearly his entire family to a predatory fish, and afterwards vows to “never let anything happen to” his surviving son, the titular Nemo. Of course, Marlin can’t hold on to Nemo forever, and Nemo is captured by a diver on the first day of school and Marlin must give chase through the entire ocean in order to find his son. Along the way he meets and befriends the amnesiac, Dory (Ellen Degeneres), and together they brave all obstacles to save the poor boy.
The voice cast is tremendous. Albert Brooks, continuing his one man quest to make insecurity and desperation more attractive, voices Marlin, creating a character that is all nervous energy and the very personification of worry. Ellen Degeneres was so beloved as Dory that she’s getting her own movie. Alexander Gould voices Nemo, and then there's the supporting cast featuring Willem Dafoe, Brad Garrett, Allison Janney, Geoffrey Rush, John Ratzenberger, Eric Bana, and Andrew Stanton (who also directs).
Finding Nemo is less funny and more complex than some of its Pixar-ian contemporaries. It evenly divides the audience's sympathies between the parent, Marlin, and the child, Nemo. Nemo must learn the difference between self-assertion and rebellion and Marlin must learn to let go. The result is that Finding Nemo features one of the most nuanced portraits of the relationship between father and son in modern cinema, and while the father-son relationship is at the movie’s core, the audience spends most of its time with a different pair – Marlin and Dory.
At first glance, Marlin and Dory are just another variation on the buddy comedy duo now common in Pixar movies (think Woody and Buzz or Sully and Mike), but there’s an added layer here. Dory’s amnesia and Marlin’s truly tragic life have left them both alone. Marlin needs to learn to let go of his past. Dory is physically incapable of holding on to hers. All she has is the present, the people in her life now. Maybe if Marlin could do a little of Dory's forgetting and she could do a little of his remembering, they'd both be ok. They aren't just foils. They're perfect foils, and, as a consequence, Dory never feels like the truly tragic character she is. She’s grateful for the friendship in her life and the opportunity to be helpful. When Marlin threatens to take that from her, Ellen Degeneres steals the movie delivering an impassioned speech about the importance of this friendship – it’s literally the only thing she knows. These layers of emotional depth are surprisingly deep, like the ocean the characters swimming through.
Two lines of its dialogue have staid with me all these years: 1) “Fish are friends. Not Food.” The motto of the shark support group who defy their nature and try to be kind to the other fish has entered my personal lexicon as a reminder that I am what I choose to be; and, 2) “Just keep swimming,” has entered my personal lexicon whenever I find myself overwhelmed. Break the task down into doable bits, and just keep going.
Despite this, I didn’t really think about Finding Nemo for years after I saw it. Not until 2009 when I was catching up on the TV show Lost in preparation for its finale where it was briefly referred to. The character Shannon (Maggie Grace) described Finding Nemo like this: “It was the cartoon about fish. You know, one of the computer ones.” (Lost, Season 1, Episode 12, “Whatever the Case May Be”). When I watched that episode, even though I hadn't seen Finding Nemo in years, I nearly shouted at the television. Finding Nemo’s not about fish. It’s about us.
In the years since I saw Finding Nemo, my life has changed. It is lonelier, touched by tragedies and lifted by triumphs. I’ve had to let go of dreams, and try to make the best of a life that is less than I might have hoped for. I have no son, but my relationship with my father has deepened and become more complex. I have taken more responsibility for it, something Nemo had to do as well. The waters of Finding Nemo so accurately reflect the lives of its human audience that I can’t help but acknowledge, with the gift of a few added years, that it must indeed be one of the best films of the 2000s.
Finding Nemo finds itself on this list because it was selected as the Number 1 film of the 2000s by Ann Homaday of The Washington Post. She couldn’t believe it when she chose it, but I can.
I’m far from finished. I’ll “just keep swimming” until I’ve seen my next selection. You Can Count on Me.
From Out in the Void