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Pixar: The Storytellers Part 5

I bring to you the fifth part of “Tyro’s”, Pixar: The Storytellers. This week’s focus is on Andrew Stanton’s, Finding Nemo.

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.

Read on..

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.

0 Responses to Pixar: The Storytellers Part 5

  1. Anonymous says:

    Very nice, loved it. Thank you!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I couldn’t have explored and said it better. 🙂
    Thank you very much!

  3. Just3d says:

    Off subject:
    Does anyone know where to find an official “Mater and the goghstlight” Poster (sized) image?


  4. Anonymous says:

    I’m begging now. Please spare us these tiresome, pointless, pseudointellectual, grammatically incorrect, extremely, EXTREMELY sophomoric analyses.

  5. PorpoiseMuffins says:

    Dude, you are such a good writer– I would have thought this had been written by a professional twice your age. Everything you said is so true, too. That IS the reason why I love this movie– the way it shows the bad with the good. The emotional impact it leaves.

  6. Michael says:

    Are you kidding me ‘Anonymous’?? Who ever said you had to read these? Go bring your disrespect and impoliteness somewhere else. Somebody actually put forth a lot of time writing these, and for one, I enjoy them. Also…I’m assuming I’m not the only one.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for your very informative story analysis. I really enjoyed reading it. You’re a good writer and I hope you write more on this topic.

  8. Anonymous says:

    To Michael and others praising the fine writing here:

    You have got to be kidding me.

    “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 . . .”

    I mean, for God’s sake, that wouldn’t pass muster in a freshman English class. It’s almost embarrassing to read. And it’s far from the only example of overheated and pretentious prose in all these posts. (By someone calling himself “Tyro,” of all things).

    As to Michael’s comment that (paraphrasing) I shouldn’t say anything if I can’t say something nice: if you’re posting a long-winded opinion piece on a blog, be prepared to take your lumps. Just because somebody spent a lot of time writing something doesn’t make it any good. Nor does it oblige the readers to enjoy the piece or only add comments praising its wonders.

    If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’re well within your rights to criticize opinion pieces which, in your opinion, are badly written or inaccurate. It is no different that any other public forum in this regard.

    And for the record:
    [sof-uh-mawr-ik, -mor-]
    1. of or pertaining to a sophomore or sophomores.
    2. suggestive of or resembling the traditional sophomore; intellectually pretentious, overconfident, conceited, etc., but immature: sophomoric questions.

    –noun, plural -ros.
    a beginner in learning anything; novice.

  9. PorpoiseMuffins says:

    “It behooves every man to remember that the work of the critic is of altogether secondary importance, and that, in the end, progress is accomplished by the man who does things.”

    -Theodore Roosevelt

    Nobody’s saying that you don’t have a right to say what you want on here, anonymous, but that doesn’t mean that you should say it.

    Get off your high horse and do something useful with your time instead of criticizing the work of others. You obviously either know very little about what effective communication is all about, or you just like to be a pain. Either way, I’m sure that you’re not going to discourage the writer of this blog from pursuing his passions.

    If you would like to give a full critique of his analysis, go for it. As it stands, you’re just a troll.

    And I can tell you from experience that this would more than pass in a Freshman English class– or a college one, for that matter.

    …And yes, I know what Sophomoric means.

  10. darryl says:

    This is an excellent article. Despite some sentence structures that I would change, I couldn’t have said any of this any better.

    I believe that Finding Nemo is one of the most flawless storytelling ever to hit this planet. One of the things that I realized is that Finding Nemo parallels the exact greatness of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.”

    There’s the:
    – Call To Adventure (Nemo gets lost)
    the Refusal to Call (Marlin refuses to believe that is son is lost),
    – the Supernatural Aid (Dory joins Marlin’s journey),
    – the Crossing of the First Theshold (the sharks, the big deep sea fish, the sea turtles, the jelly fish),
    – and The Belly of the Whale (literally the “belly of the whale” when Marlin learns just to let go and trust himself).

    – the Road of Trials (Marlin sees Nemo pretending to be dead and almost gives up, splits apart with Dory, goes off on his own),
    – Meeting with the Goddess (he finds Dory and Nemo in danger of getting fished),
    – Woman as the Tempress (he has to learn from his son that it’s okay to trust the process),
    – Atonement with the Father (After victory with the fishermen, Marlin realizes he’s been too overprotective),
    – Apotheosis and The Return (Marlin and Nemo realize they love each other and can trust each other).

    Sorry for the long comment, I just had to point that out.

  11. Anonymous says:


    If there’s an English teacher on the planet that would commend a bit of purple nonsense like “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” they should be whipped naked through their own lecture hall.

    It’s enough to make Byron blush, that. And it doesn’t even make proper sense!

    Far be it from me to discourage “Tyro” from pursuing his passions. Certainly, they could do with a good deal more pursuing, based on the available evidence.

    I would however suggest that the editor of this blog should be more selective in what he presents as in-depth analysis, especially when it’s this kind of facile sophistry, tarted up with ludicrous similes involving muses’ breasts and harlots, and peppered with numerous grammatical and punctuation errors.

    What you’re missing, in attacking me as a critic, is that Tyro’s screed is in fact not a creative work that I am criticizing, but a work of criticism itself. As such it is open to argument, debate, withering scorn and any other number of attacks, or it is worthless.

    How much time he or she spent on it or how passionate he or she is has absolutely nothing to do with its qualities at all. Like all these multi-page treatises clogging up this blog it is an extremely shallow piece of analysis and if Tyro were in my class (and yes I have taught them — what’s your experience, Porpoise, exactly? You’ve been in one or two?) I would hand it back for a rewrite without a grade.

    Without a penalty, mind you, for the effort, but with a plentiful quantity of red ink.

    And I’m not trolling. I responded to this and another post of this type in much the same way. I have neither the time nor the inclination to rebut the weaknesses of Tyro’s writing and analysis point by point.

    And that’s not why I wrote my first post. Or my second, or this one for that matter. Simply, these posts are tiresome, extremely overwritten for their shallow content, and miss the mark, and I am perfectly within my rights to be sick and tired of coming across them, and furthermore, to complain about them. And, I might add, to point out to other readers that not everyone thinks this is brilliant story analysis. In reality it’s about two steps above a high school newspaper.

    If it were presented as such, it probably wouldn’t annoy me. It’s the lofty pretentiousness of the tone that sets me off (cf. the harlot bit above).

    A few readings of a screenplay how-to book do not a story analyst make. Trust me.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I think people need to relax a bit. I don’t entirely like what “Tyro” said, but hey, can’t we just leave it at that? It’s cool that some people like, some people don’t.

    Also, teacher guy above, I think that harlot bit was a quote from that book, not this guy? I think you need to put your grammr and stuff on hold, you’re giving yourself a breakdown!

    A big fat Meh.

  13. PorpoiseMuffins says:

    Wow, and you’re calling him pretentious? He even apologizes at the end of the article to anyone who doesn’t like his analysis… He never claims to be a great writer (quite the contrary), and then you go off making assumptions about his writing experience and ranting about how he should just keep his mouth shut.

    If you’re a teacher, I can tell you right now that you need to be fired. I’ve dealt with people like you, and your sort of attitude is usually the result of envy and ignorance (i.e. “my career never got anywhere, whaaa!”). If you actually want to help this guy, send him a private e-mail and discuss with him how he can improve his writing– don’t publicly and pretentiously slam him in his blog.

    If you think his writing is really that poor, you haven’t spent enough time on the Internet, and you certainly haven’t spent enough time around people the age of the writer. Barring the occasional grammatical error (I’m sure that wasn’t of utmost importance here– and what publication doesn’t have them?), this is a very professionally written blog.

    And by the way, I did think about the fact that his analysis might also be considered a work of “criticism” when I posted that quote. However, it is an objective work that supplements the viewer’s understanding of the film rather than a piece that negatively criticizes the creation. In addition, the quote doesn’t condemn all forms of criticism– It simply encourages people to keep in mind that it is the the person who does things that accomplishes things. The author of the blog is definitely “doing something.” You are definitely not XD

    …And I have been in more than one or two English classes. Try at least seven– both high school and college. I consistantly earned As in a school system known for its quality, and most of my courses were honors sections. I don’t really put much stock in education when there are folks like you doing the educating, however. I look to the professionals and hobbiests who are actually creating and influencing out in the real world and on the web– not the teacher sitting in a classroom.

    It sounds cliche, but if you really find these so tiresome– STOP READING THEM!

  14. PorpoiseMuffins says:

    …And dude, he’s right about the quote.

    That is an Arthur Koestler quote. Tyro didn’t write that; he quoted it.

    And thus my point has been proven: Writing critics like you harbor some of the most disgraceful double-standards of any individuals on the planet. Because you originally thought it wasn’t written by a famous author, you called it “sophomoric.” What say you now?

    I think we can all safely confirm your troll status now, as it’s clear you didn’t even read the article.

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