Review: Finding Nemo’s Story Is About So Much More Than Finding Nemo

“Where is Nemo?” yet another clownfish blares about twenty minutes into Finding Nemo. The question after the titular fish’s short-sighted gamble to touch a motorboat, departure from the protection of the fish’s father, and subsequent abduction has gotten so intense that reasonable people would spend 100 minutes trying to answer this question. Can’t we just wish Nemo well and leave him alone?

But the frenzy around Nemo, son of Marlin, raises important questions that go well beyond the usual concerns of casual mystery-film watchers. Those questions stem from the overprotection with which Nemo has been treated, by Marlin at least, compared with the thrashing bestowed upon Nemo’s siblings under Marlin’s unwatchful eye.

On the surface, the controversy over Nemo’s gamble and his abduction have nothing to do with Nemo’s murdered siblings. The way the movie plays out, however – and the contrast with how Marlin’s character plays out at the beginning and end of the film – is rooted in how we have been conditioned, by Pixar and Disney, to think about the fish. Their relationship has been manipulated by Marlin for years to generate nostalgia for family structures of an idealized past, one where Nemo’s siblings and mother were not brutally killed by a shark.

Post-trauma Marlin has significant, substantive problems – problems that are far bigger than any juvenile insolence by his son, Nemo. And trapping Nemo in a constrained role, forcing him not to explore the outside world and reducing him to symbols of familial safety or innocence is a powerful and emotionally safe distraction. But it is harmful all around, and eventually, as Nemo’s abduction shows, it can backfire if accompanied by heavy-handed manipulation. Marlin’s blatant coverups of the outside world fuel Nemo’s exploratory desires that may and do spiral out of the father’s control, a father-son dynamic that applies to much more than a somber tale of two fish.