I bring to you the fifth part of “Tyro’s”, Pixar: The Storytellers. This week’s focus is on Andrew Stanton’s, Finding Nemo.
How does Finding Nemo, a film marketed as a comedy, start? Sure, the opening shots are of the lush coral reef scenery, the brilliant visuals, and a man (forget the fish characterisation for a moment) humouring his wife. But what’s the first event? Finding Nemo starts by a man’s family being murdered. And it is this understanding and willingness to embrace the very depths of life, of the nature of conflict, that really makes Finding Nemo the unparalleled success it’s been.
You see, the fundamental principle of the interplay between antagonism (the negative forces in life) and protagonism (the positive) is how much one is forced to overcome the other. The insistence that a happy, funny, cheery, feel-good film must only toil with the positive side of life is a drastically incorrect view. Because the proof of the protagonists vision, the up ending, is only as strong as the antagonistic forces it overcomes. If, through the telling, we haven’t been taken to the limits of the characters’ emotional depth, or the antagonism the world has to offer, then the emotional feeling we get at the end will be correspondingly weak.
And this is how Pixar, and Andrew Stanton, really understand storytelling, for they are willing to embrace the negative forces of life, they know it’s where the key to all great storytelling lies. Try telling a story where the values in a character’s life change from good, to better, to best, to perfect. I guarantee the audience will cry . . . with boredom. Story comes from conflict, the great gap between how we perceive the world, and how the world is. And how we act when we’re thrown into this conflict gives films their meaning. And if the conflict we place our characters in is mediocre, the end effect will be mediocre. If we grasp characters by their neck and plunge them into the deep end, where it seems they’ll be swallowed up . . . the audience are engaged on a profoundly deeper level. The emotional climax will be one of such intensity and poignancy that it will really move us.
Getting back to Finding Nemo, note Marlin’s character at the opening of the film: easy going, friendly, bold, confident, full of hope. After the credits, where is he? At the absolute opposite. The experience has affected him so, that not only is he a little bit of a worrier, or a little bit concerned, but he’s imprisoning himself and his son within the barriers of his self deception. He’s a disbeliever. He neither believes the world is a safe place, or that he and his son can survive it. He’s just so paralysed and crippled by his fear that it’s literally taken over his life. And, if you recall my description of the Education Plot, you’ll see how Finding Nemo fits this genre. Marlin is at the negative in terms of his thought: the ocean is a dangerous place, and he doesn’t believe that Nemo can survive in it. He’s a disbeliever, a sceptic, a doubter and a worrier.
Once he takes Nemo to his first day at school (setting up in the dialogue his journey: “Well, if I ever see a sea turtle, I ask how old he is, after I’ve spoken to the shark”), how does this negative thought affect his relationship with his son? Crucially, where is the value of love between the two? It’s not at the positive, but at the negative. Years of Marlin’s fretting and holding Nemo back has finally ended in Marlin angering Nemo so much that he says to his father “I hate you.” Then what happens? What’s the ‘comic’ premise behind the film? A father’s son is kidnapped. Not especially funny, but it proves yet again how diving into the depths of antagonism, far from creating a depressing, sad film, can empower you to tell the best stories.
So, not only is Nemo captured and taken away, but hate is the relationship between the two. And it’s, really, this value that blocks the two characters from uniting. Sure, they’re miles apart, but the film doesn’t end on them being reunited, that’s the penultimate event. I’ll come back to this later.
Once Nemo is captured, Marlin’s instinctive reaction is to chase after him and get him back. The trouble is that this requires a trek through the ocean. A physical journey from point A to point B. What this creates is the Education Plot’s more notorious form – the road movie. A character, sometimes two (TransAmerica), sometimes a group (Little Miss Sunshine) are put under the physical constraint of having to undertake some massive journey. Typically, they’re paired with a companion who embodies they’re negative thought, or may even be the subject of it. Then, through the journey, as they undergo experience after experience, putting them under greater and greater pressure, they start to resort to actions that contradict they’re negative thought. And it’s the positive result of these actions that start to arc a change in the character’s view. Until, when they reach their destination, they’ve changed.
So how does Finding Nemo achieve this? First, Marlin is paired with Dory, who, possibly due to her memory problem, is the opposite of Marlin’s characterisation: bold, confident, friendly, and aware of none of the dangers that threaten Marlin so much, indeed, she’s willing to embrace such dangers, not really caring about the consequences. Given this companion, Marlin then has his first experience: Bruce the shark. But is Bruce a dangerous, scary, horrible shark? At first, no. He’s the opposite. But then the danger is revealed. Bruce turns nasty, and Marlin’s only lead to the whereabouts of his son is lost into the depths.
And, again, are the depths scary? Sure, they’re dark, but then they’re presented by a calming, relaxing light. Then the danger presents itself. And how does Marlin act? For the first time, he’s brave. He doesn’t cower away from the angler fish, but keeps up the pursuit, takes it on. And what is the result of such bravery? Success – they get their destination: Sydney.
Then what happens? They face a trench, and Dory wants to swim through it, but Marlin insists they swim over it. In other words, he doesn’t believe in Dory. And what’s the result of this? Danger – they get swamped by jellyfish. Presented with this, does Marlin cower away? No, he puts his trust in Dory, empowering her with belief that she can make it through. But what’s the result? She fails, she gets trapped among the jellyfish. Given this, does Marlin cower away and abandon her? No, he fights through, taking the numerous stings he gets, and battles his way out.
Then Marlin is introduced to the sea turtles. And what do they tell him? Believe in yourself and your children. They’re willing to let their kids stand up on their own two feet. And the result: a loving, strong relationship. Then Marlin gets tossed down “the swirling vortex of terror” – but survives, indeed, it was actually fun for Marlin. Despite all this, upon Marlin’s next experience, he’s still unwilling to believe in Dory. Holding onto dear life on the whale’s tongue, its throat the dark tunnel of death below, Dory is urging Marlin to let go, to believe that she knows what she’s doing. But what happens? For the first real time, an inner gap explodes within Marlin as he yells at Dory, telling her she thinks she’s capable but isn’t, and in a Freudian slip yells out “Nemo” instead. Then he looks to her scar from the jelly encounter. And we can almost hear the cogs clicking into place in his brain. He believes in her and . . . they’re thrown into Sydney harbour.
Finally, after all this travelling, Marlin reaches the dentist’s, reaches the destination, but what does he see (or thinks he sees) – a dead Nemo. A crushing blow that climaxes the second act. Marlin has battled all the way through to get to Nemo, and has succeeded, only for his son to be dead. And all the experiences that Marlin went through, all the arcing of his character, and the possibilities that the world isn’t actually that bad, are swallowed up as he’s left emotionally destroyed.
But Nemo is in fact alive, and thanks to the efforts of Gil and his companions that he met during his story (which taught him equally valuable lessons, affirming that he is indeed strong and capable, but making him realise how much he does love his Dad) escapes the office and gets into the sea. From here, Marlin and Nemo are reunited with each other. But remember how I stated this doesn’t climax the story. For one crucial reason. The physical distance between the two was never at the heart of the story. The main two values are belief and love. And, given the film centres on Marlin’s negative thought processes, how are we to see, cinematically, whether or not Marlin has changed? Through a final action.
And this is perhaps one of the only ways I could attempt at criticising the story: the event which places Marlin under this pressure is in fact coincidental. It doesn’t come about as a result of the story. It’s not a paying off of any character we’ve been introduced to (thought I know it pays off Nemo’s lesson of the filter). Despite this, the climax does come down to Marlin. He’s faced with a final dilemma. Keeping his son on the one hand, but losing his friend, and failing to achieve any character change thus condemning him to the same self deception for the rest of his life; or risk losing his son to save his friend, but ultimately change for the better. Grabbing hold of Nemo, his son begs him: “Dad, I can do this”, and in the subtext we hear Nemo say: “believe in me”. And finally Marlin makes his crisis decision, the irreversible action that climaxes the story against the utmost forces of antagonism. He believes. Realising that he’s made it across the ocean, that, despite the world having it’s dangers, they are not insurmountable. Knowing this, he sees the strength of his son anew. He lets his son go, the fish burst through the net . . . and father and son are reunited once more.
But, crucially, what then happens? What will be the result of this decision? When Nemo comes to, what does he say to Marlin? “I don’t hate you”, and in the subtext we hear “ . . . I love you”. Marlin’s belief has reversed the negative relationship, swinging it to the positive. An overwhelmingly positive emotion and meaning swells inside us – that would have been no way near as strong if the story hadn’t reached such depths of antagonism.
The meaning: Love binds parent and child when the parent learns to believe in his child. I read somewhere how someone disliked the film because they felt they were being hit over the head with “I told you so – don’t go against your Dad”, but it should be clear now how that is dead wrong.
After that powerful climax, we’re treated to a charming resolution, a reversal of waking up for school, then Marlin racing through the coral, telling a joke, the return of Bruce and Offspring. Then Nemo swims off on Ray, but halts, swims back to Marlin and then says “I love you”, and what’s in the subtext? I’m sorry for what I said, what I did, all that stuff. And Marlin says “I love you”, saying the same thing. Then he watches Nemo swim off with his school, and does he say “Be safe” like he did in the opening? No. There’s no need, that look on his face speaks volumes, as he proudly watches his son swim off, fading into the huge body of the ocean.
It may seem a simple story to tell, but try it. Watch Brother Bear, and just be appalled at how horribly on the nose and heavy-handedly it’s done. The protagonist, and the audience, are literally told “Okay, here’s what’s going to happen: you’ve got this problem, and you’re going to go on this journey, where you’ll see how wrong you were, then things will turn out alright”. The laziness with which that story is told is not only insulting to the audience, but ruins any effect the story would have. As Arthur Koestler states in his brilliant book “The Act of Creation”:
When the styles and techniques of an art have become conventionalised and stagnant, the audience is exempted from the necessity to exert its intelligence and imagination – and deprived of its reward. Art becomes a mildly pleasant pastime and loses its emotive impact, its transcendental appeal and cathartic effect.
The surest symptom of decadent art is that it leaves nothing to the imagination; the muse has bared her bosom like a too obliging harlot – there is no veiled promise, no mystery, nothing to divine.
So the brilliance of Finding Nemo is not only the antagonism, the character journey and the like, but the freshness and originality with which it’s told. And that is Pixar’s strength. Once you get into the heart of stories, the values and causes that drive them, there are actually very few stories you can tell. The challenge, then, is to find brilliant, engaging, original ways to tell them. And that’s what Pixar do every time.
And consider, too, the sheer pointlessness of a sequel. It’s a point I raised in my Toy Story 2 analysis. Finding Nemo works because of the profound emotional journey Marlin has to go on. And at story climax, that’s resolved, so there’s simply no more story to tell. The thing we loved about Finding Nemo is no more. Father and son are reunited, and the love between them restored. What more needs to be said? We love the characters and the world – but they all stem from the meaning of that story, which has served its purpose. To tell another, different, story, is nonsensical.
So that concludes this analysis. Next time, The Incredibles, and the use of subplots and multiple characters. I hope you’ve been enjoying these articles, and if you haven’t, there’s not that long left now, so bare with me.