What I remember most is the look of the ocean: it was not like the beaches only a ten-minute drive from our house, or the aquarium 45 minutes away in Boston. It was darker, seemingly expanding before my eyes. I must have been scared yet unable to look away. One shot in particular, of small fish silhouetted against the dark water (or at least that’s how I remember it), seemed to go on forever. I know now that it is my memory of the image, its haunting quality, that makes it feel so long. That ocean has been with me for twenty-years, since I saw it while at the movie theater for the first time.
The film was Finding Nemo (2003), the Homeric tale of a father rescuing his son, who must travel great distances to develop familial bonds and close friendships, and in doing so reckons with his own trauma. We witness the traumatic event in the film’s opening minutes: clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Coral (Elizabeth Perkins) live in an anemone, their whole lives ahead of them. A batch of eggs wait to hatch. Then a barracuda attacks, killing Coral and all of their nearly-born children but one, who grows into Nemo (Alexander Gould), born with a small, deformed fin as a result.
The only other feeling I can remember from that first time watching Finding Nemo is a sense of loss, not fully understanding how Coral could be dead. I must have been waiting for her to return, so that the confrontation with death would not linger in my mind, that I might avoid the end of life, a phenomenon I was only just beginning to understand. But that relief never comes. Instead, the next hundred minutes or so are concerned with a small fish who makes his way across the ocean with nothing but death at the front of his mind.
To watch Finding Nemo with childhood in the rearview mirror is to understand how finely it depicts trauma. Forever changed by the attack, Marlin is understandably over-protective of his son. Nemo, who starts school at the beginning of the film, is eager to prove himself as a brave and able swimmer. Clearly, he does not want his classmates to define him by his small fin. When Marlin, in front of his son’s new friends, swoops in to protect Nemo from open water, citing his poor abilities as a swimmer, it triggers Nemo’s reckless decision to touch the “butt” of a nearby boat. Marlin hopelessly watches as scuba divers appear out of nowhere and abducts Nemo. It is the barracuda attack all over again.
The vast, dark ocean becomes a metaphor for navigating and living with trauma; existing in a dark world, searching, hoping for light, a crumb that will point towards the right direction. Marlin’s journey has moments of joy and terror, luck and cruel failure. Yet it is always beautiful, even at its most terrifying. The ocean’s duality – that it can be home to coral reefs and trenches darker than we can imagine –fascinates and scares us just at the same time. A film like Nemo teaches children that it is okay to feel both things, especially at once. How else are we to make our way through the world?
Watching the film today, two decades since its release, it is easy to see why its use of technology, and in particular its rendering of the ocean, wowed audiences from six-year-old me to Roger Ebert, who called it “one of those rare movies where I wanted to sit in the front row and let the images wash out to the edges of my field of vision.” Technology is not just a commercial draw, or a byproduct of its time, but an essential part of the storytelling. It takes on its own meaning. And when successfully employed, its resonance lives on, no matter how much technology has progressed in the interim. The ocean in Nemo still wows and haunts.
Finding Nemo was Pixar’s fifth film, sandwiched between Monsters, Inc. (2001) and The Incredibles (2004). In the years since, the studio has come to mirror the times more than pushing the medium ahead: many of their films, and in particular the sequels, play like commercials for whatever merchandise sits on the shelves of your local big box store. Few films from last year were as painful to sit through as Lightyear, for example, which got me thinking about the endurance of Nemo. Just like the ocean, space remains a frontier mostly outside human understanding, a site of hope and fear. It is not just that Lightyear fails to depict space with the same richness that Nemo does the ocean; it’s that it does not even attempt it. No effort is made to grapple with the unknown.
Nemo persists because of the ocean. Because even when we know how the story ends, we will never know what exists deeper in the frame. The same is true in life: no matter how much we age, the dark unknown persists. It is why the ocean of Finding Nemo lives on in the minds of those of us who saw it as children (and adults), and will continue to do so in the next twenty years, and beyond. It teaches us that no matter our fears, no matter the darkness ahead, we must keep going. It is the only way to find the light.