A Story For Fish Tank Kids
When we think of kid's movies, we usually think of goofy
gags and happy endings. But consider some of the moments that
outlast our childhoods: the death of Bambi's mother, E.T.
leaving Elliot, the struggle of race and friendship between
The Fox and the Hound. The notion that kids movies
have to goofy in every frame is bogus, more immature than
the film's intended audience. Children's movies need bright
colors, goofy gags, lots of action, and a happy endingbut
the very best, which is to say mature, children's films have
as much arc and variety as any other movie. Think of Fantasia,
Beauty and the Beast, or even the internment camps
of Chicken Run: all cloudy days compared to, say, Shrek.
A children's film doesn't need a Bergmanesque plot structure,
but this does not mean that the themes can't have depth beyond
the kiddie plot: 1999's The Iron Giant comes to mind,
as does Pinocchio, or the search for meaning and delusions
of grandeur contained in both Toy Story movies.
That said, the first five minutes of Finding Nemo are
the most audacious of any digitally animated film. I don't
want to give away too much plot; let's just say that when
time skips ahead, dad Marlin is fussing his only son Nemo
off to school. Usually, overly-fussy parents are the butts
of jokes and derision, but we are drawn to Marlin's protective
instincts because of the fright felt in the openinga
necessary scene that allows dad more character arc without
being artificial. Marlin ushers the wide-eyed Nemo to school,
careful to note that Nemo's under-developed fin is his "lucky"
flipper. Nemo is anxious to make friends and otherwise "go
to school"a wonderland of adventure, mystery, and
something called "learning." Marlin, of course,
is not pleased with the school's curriculum, which involves
exploring different parts of the Great Barrier Reef. Marlin's
reluctance to allow Nemo to go on a field trip sparks rebellion,
resulting in his capture and entrapment in a tank adorning
a dentist's office in Sydney.
The bulk of the movie follows Marlin (Albert Brooks) and
his new friend Dory (Ellen Degeneres) and their odyssey to
save Nemo. Along the way, Marlin and Dory battle sharks struggling
with their twelve-step programs ("Fish are friends, not
food"), barracudas, and benign jellyfish whose stingers
glow like the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Back in the tank, Nemo and his fellow captives attempt a great
escape from the tank, involving an elaborate strategy of clogging
the filter to force a cleaning and pushing the baggy out the
window into the harbor. It's the sort of plot that makes no
sense to describe, but is perfectly rational with the internal
logic of the movielike the scream harnessing in Monsters,
Inc. or superhero ambitions of Buzz Lightyear.
Plot aside, the movie is a little preachy in its approach
to parenting. Like many animated films, Finding Nemo imagines
another world as if it's the suburbia occupied by its audience.
Marlin's overparenting is directed at the parents who just
coughed up fifty bucks (after refreshments) to take the kids
to the movies. The lesson, of course, is that we have to let
kids discover things on their own, that we can't shelter
them forever. It's a little clichéd, I know, and the
movie does pour it on thickly: Marlin rides the East Australian
Current and hitches a ride with some surfer turtles, who teach
him that you have to "let the little dudes go" and
"they'll get the hang of it!" That sounds a bit
like the detached, California parenting that spawned John
Walker Lindh. Still, the greatest danger to today's kids isn't
terrorism, but the smothering, protective, conservative parenting
of the SUV generation.
The ocean scenery fits into the idea. Even as recently as
my childhood, American yards were fenceless, and neighborhoods
were meant to explored. We roamed the town without soccer
schedules or playdates, just as little Nemo yearns to swim
the ocean, uncovering mysteries beneath seashells and making
friends with fish that aren't his species. Nemo's tank is
the perfect metaphor for today's kids, whose lives are entrapped
in a small world with limited opportunity to experience life,
whose fishbowl lives are on their parents' display. They're
too young to realize it now, but their parents aren't, and
they're both sitting in the theater together. I remember when
even the theater wasn't a confinement, complete with a full
playground right below the drive-in screen, the opening cartoon
a signal to return to our parent's station wagons and open-bed
trucks. I think it no coincidence that Pixar's opening graphics
for Monsters, Inc. are throwbacks to that era, or that
Pixar now treats us to a free short before the main feature.
Pixar respects both kids and parentswhich cannot be
said for certain big green ogres of animation. Finding
Nemo is the darkest, most ambitious film in the Pixar
canon, not to mention the most relevantand for that,
it has my utmost respect.