Marlin the Helicopter Dad: Revisiting Finding Nemo

"FINDING NEMO 3D" ©2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

“FINDING NEMO 3D” ©2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Just in time for father’s day, one of Hollywood’s ultimate dad movies will finally get its long awaited sequel. Finding Dory may switch protagonist but father and son, Marlin and Nemo, are back too. And while the two movies take a different approach, both Finding Nemo and Finding Dory hit on one of our biggest fears…losing family.

Even when it came out, Finding Nemo felt like a big step forward for Pixar. Technically the film had a look that was unlike anything else the company had done, using photorealistic backgrounds images to go under the sea (remember, Little Mermaid meant they had a lot to live up to). The movie never looks “realistic” but the detailed work involved in creating the various ocean backgrounds and colorful, character specific fish were so spectacular, audiences wanted the imagery just to wash over them. And the voice work from a cast (lead by Albert Brooks and Ellen Degeneres), made up largely of character actors, had familiar if not always instantly distinct voices. And while Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc. had already hit audiences pretty hard with stories that had emotional weight, Nemo and Marlin’s journey played on our universal fears like few family movies had.

If Finding Nemo feels different from other Pixar movies, it might because it’s one of their few animated features in which the story and themes are aimed at adult minds, more than kids. Kids enjoyed Finding Nemo of course; the characters were funny, visuals spectacular, and plot point resonated a deep fear most little ones have. But when you think about the big ideas the movie wants to tackle, they attach to adults stronger than kids, because it hits on those fears from the perspective of the worrier. Finding Nemo is in that great tradition of Disney forcing a separation of the parent and child relationship…Bambi, Dumbo, The Lion King. Unlike those films, which focused on the child’s reaction (the approach Finding Dory takes), the focus is on Marlin’s fears and desperation.

I’ve heard people claim Finding Nemo’s decision to kill off Marlin’s wife and Nemo’s mother was just an act of audience manipulation, meant to get audiences eyes watering before the movie really starts. Well, sure…and it totally works. But it also establishes the character Marlin better than any other scene could have. He was a worrier before the tragic events that start the film, but after losing everything but Nemo, his clingy over protectiveness makes perfect sense and is difficult to criticize. He holds on too tightly because he’s already experienced such tragic loss.

The term helicopter parent had come into common use in the early 2000s with the Millennial Generatio the time Finding Nemo was made. But Finding Nemo didn’t just use Marlin’s mirroring of millennial parents to mock them or put them in their place. Finding Nemo identified with Marlin’s struggle and anxieties in a deep, empathetic way, while still addressing it as a problem. Marlin’s fears that Nemo needs to be protected are completely rational but they also happen to be something Marlin needs to get over so his son can grow up and survive. And in the course of Marlin’s journey, he needs to BOTH find his son and trust Nemo’s ability to take care of himself. Nemo isn’t ready to be thrown out of the nest entirely, he just needs a little independence from dad so someday he can.

"FINDING NEMO 3D" ©2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

“FINDING NEMO 3D” ©2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Throughout the movie, while Marlin is searching, Nemo finds that independence from a mentor that trusts he can do more than Nemo believes he’s capable of. Williem Dafoe’s Gil has no patience for Nemo’s apprehension. And Gill is a character more identifiable than younger kids would even realize when first watching. In some of the best circumstances in real-life, it’s common for a kid like Nemo to be influenced by someone outside the family, who can push them outside the comfort zone. It’s especially true for Nemo, being a kid also dealing with a physical challenge which makes his father even more protective. Gill’s like a lot of coaches or teachers we’ve seen in movies about kids finding their potential by showing a tougher side of encouragement…he just happens to be a fish trying to escape an aquarium.

But we can’t overlook the fact that Marlin’s concerns for Nemo are based on realities. Nemo needs to make adjustments due to his tiny fin his kid fish peers don’t have to is a reality in their life that can’t be ignored. Marlin’s constantly saying “he can’t” isn’t necessary (or helpful), but it is understandable because of his desire to protect his son from real dangers (like being taken by a scuba diver), potential dangers (the attack on his family), and his worse fears.

That worse fear Marlin has to face would arguably Dory. Not because Dory is the worse fish Nemo could become, far from it in fact. But because Marlin finding Dory lost in the ocean, alone and disoriented, is a terrible idea for a parent to imagine for their lost child. The idea that Nemo could be swimming around all alone, trying to get home, hits that panic button we all have inside…that becomes a big red alarm for parents. I remember going to see this movie with my mother during a break from college, and while I cried (a lot) I think it hit her especially hard because she had her own fears about letting go. What if something happens and you aren’t there to help your child, or just comfort them.

Which is why Dory being there adds something very special to Marlin’s journey and makes it even more adult oriented. Dory is a constant reminder of the “what could happen” fear, but also forces Marlin to confront his own parental behavior. Has his helicoptering hurt Nemo’s survival skills? Did that protectiveness force Nemo to rebel? He meets other kids, like the sea turtles, who are well adjusted but allowed far more independence and expected to keep up with the adults (with a little help from their parents’ of course). Marlin’s shift from disapproval of Crush’s parenting style (director Andrew Stanton’s excellent voice work as the surf turtle) to almost envy plays a big role in changing his parental mind set towards the film’s conclusion. He realizes he wants Nemo to one day take care of himself.

Which is why the long awaited reunion between Marlin and Nemo ends up being more complicated than simply a father finding and rescuing his son because Nemo had to play a big role in his own survival. Nemo, realizing Marlin faced his own real and imagined fears to get him back, saves himself because of the motivation he gets from his father. Marlin doesn’t save Nemo directly, but he helps him save himself and is there for him when they are reunited (and Nemo won’t be getting home without his father by his side). When Dory is caught in a net, after their reunion, Marlin is worried but ultimately proud to see Nemo save her by pushing himself to his physical limits. Marlin’s pride in Nemo, and realization that he is growing up, adds a heartwarming twist to what is already an emotional rollercoaster of a movie.

The wonderful thing about Finding Nemo is how the affection for the film has grown since it’s release. And at least part of it the way maturity adds to the film already strong appeal. Often with animated features, adult re-watches require audiences to look at the movie through nostalgic lens. But watching Finding Nemo a decade later, I found it felt more relevant than when I first saw it. And for the younger kids watching it then, or those young people who have since become parents, Finding Nemo hits on some rare, deep emotional truths which are rarely seen in any movies…let alone an animated children’s movie.

Lesley Coffin is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, The Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria.