The Disneyverse is responsible for so many memorable tales of love, friendship and companionship, both expected and unexpected. But I have to say I really appreciate Pixar’s particular way of combining the complexity of modern relationships with age-old tropes that somehow always results in something beautiful, heartwarming and relatable — even when told through computer-animated toys, monsters and fish.
In “Finding Nemo,” the titular character — a little clownfish who was fishnapped by a diver — takes a backseat to the film’s exploration of the relationship between Marlin, Nemo’s frantic father, and Dory, the forgetful blue tang who joins Marlin’s quest to save his son.
The two fish meet up in the first frenzied moments of Marlin’s search for the boat that took Nemo away. Dory enthusiastically offers to lead Marlin to the boat but quickly forgets her purpose, and it is then that we see these characters’ most deep-rooted traits laid bare: Marlin is an impatient, easily agitated worrywart, and Dory is an engaging, kind-hearted, trusting creature who happens to suffer from short-term memory loss. In other words: desperately incompatible.
The pairing up of total opposites is a fairly common trope in films and television. In most cases, it doesn’t take long before one character calls out the other, or they discover they have more in common than they first thought, or they realize they’re powerfully attracted to each other, or some combination of these. This leads to playful bickering instead of real fighting and the quick development of a strong romance or friendship.
This doesn’t really happen between Marlin and Dory. Sure, Marlin shows genuine concern for Dory during their close calls with sharks, an angler fish and a bloom of jellyfish — but in the midst of escaping these dangerous situations, he tries to ditch her. At this point, it seems as though Marlin views Dory as not a companion or friend, but as a child he must look after — a scenario that he feels he has already failed at and is trying desperately to rectify. He doesn’t need to deal with the emotions and struggles attached to a new relationship during this already difficult period, and he spends a good chunk of the movie trying to avoid them.
As soon as it seems like Marlin may be developing a real friendship with Dory and absorbing some important life lessons about becoming more easygoing and trusting, he gets tested again when the pair get swallowed by a whale. Again, the fish reveal those inborn characteristics — and the movie’s more than two-thirds over at this point.
MARLIN: The water’s going down … it’s, it’s, it’s going down!
DORY: Really? You sure about that?
MARLIN: Look! Already it’s half-empty!
DORY: Hmm. I’d say it’s half-full.
MARLIN: Stop that! It’s half-empty!
It is here, though — with just about 20 minutes remaining in the film — that Marlin reaches a turning point. He is confronted with the importance of letting go, both physically and emotionally. The choice to let go allows him to be free — in more ways than one! — to continue his quest for his son. When Marlin’s search comes to an end, his choice also seems to allow him to recognize his feelings and voice his appreciation for his companion. In response to these emotions, Dory — though immensely likeable throughout the film — finally becomes dimensional enough to match the character of Marlin.
MARLIN: Dory. If it wasn’t for you, I never even would’ve made it here. So thank you.
DORY: Hey, hey, wait a minute! W-w-wait! W-where are you going?
MARLIN: It’s over, Dory. We were too late. Nemo’s gone. And I’m going home now.
DORY: No … no, you can’t. S-stop! Please don’t go away. Please? No one’s ever stuck with me for so long before. And if you leave … if you leave … I just, I remember things better with you, I do, look, P. Sherman, forty-two, fff … forty … two … I remember it, I do, it’s there, I know it is, because when I look at you, I can feel it. And, and I look at you and … I’m home. Please. I don’t want that to go away. I don’t want to forget.
If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is.
Of course, there are a few more obstacles to overcome. A lesser movie studio would have Marlin and Dory unite at that moment, but it takes the return of Nemo to bring the two fish together again. When Dory gets swept into a fishing net with a school of grouper-types, Nemo hatches a strategy to save her and the rest of the fish. Marlin hesitates, knowing he may lose his son again. When he decides to let Nemo go through with his plan, there seems to be a twofold reason — not just trusting his son and letting him go, but getting his dear friend back.
While there’s no real romance component, it’s clear at the end of the movie that the three fish constitute an odd but sweet little family unit. And in this way, Pixar has given us a refreshing, contemporary look at learning to trust ourselves and others, developing and cultivating relationships, and the elements and moments that bind us together forever.