Of the various behind-the-scenes stories that have now become apocryphal to the Pixar legend, it’s hard to beat the one associated with Finding Nemo. In the final few years of his time at the top of the Walt Disney Company, Michael Eisner was convinced that Pixar’s winning streak both at the box office and with critics was about to end with this animated feature, the first led by director Andrew Stanton. Eisner couldn’t possibly fathom, he told shareholders, how this movie about a clownfish desperately scouring the ocean for his missing (and only) son with a forgetful blue Tang at his side could ever hit it big with audiences worldwide. When he made these comments in 2001, he did so based on a work-in-progress screening that was, in three respects, vastly different from the final product: Marlin was voiced by William H. Macy, instead of Albert Brooks; the angelfish Gill was, in spite of being the leader of the fish in P. Sherman’s aquarium, lying about his sordid past; and Stanton chose to dole out a series of flashbacks explaining what happened to Nemo’s mother, Coral, instead of beginning the film this way.
It’s the last change that’s worth highlighting in today’s column about the 2003 comedy. Finding Nemo is, of course, one of Pixar’s most resounding successes. Until Toy Story 3 came along, it was their highest-grossing film at the box office and is widely beloved by critics and audiences in general; the father-son relationship as well as the back-and-forth between Brooks as Marlin and Ellen DeGeneres as Dory are major high points of the film’s emotional spine, and the story’s generally speedy pacing and quick wit remain endearing more than a decade later. You might think, if you’re familiar with the concept behind these Pixar Moment columns, that an easy pick regarding Finding Nemo would be the climactic moment where Dory explains that, for whatever reason, her short-term memory loss has gotten better since she’s spent time with Marlin on this adventure. This initially goofy character bares her soul in a surprisingly emotional scene, a touching moment from a most unexpected source.
And yet, that’s not where we’re looking today. In part, highlighting the pre-title scene in Finding Nemo is inspired by the shrewd move to avoid flashbacks in detailing how Coral is killed by an errant barracuda, along with all but one of her newborn children, leaving behind only the now-cripplingly neurotic Marlin and his eternally wounded son Nemo. The other inspiration comes from, perhaps, a most unlikely source: the newest film from Disneynature, Bears. This documentary, opening in theaters on Friday, is about three brown bears, a mother and her two cubs, and how she helps them survive their first year in the Alaskan Peninsula. Ostensibly, this should be a fine blend of education and entertainment, explaining how bears thrive within this environment and showing plenty of adorable/endearing moments of this mama bear and her children. In execution, however, Bears suffers from the March of the Penguins Syndrome, wherein the filmmakers presume that kids won’t sit still for a nature documentary unless there are wacky interludes, an intrusive narration track (provided here by John C. Reilly), an aggressively twinkly score, and other distracting elements.
Most telling of all is this fact: the first five minutes of Finding Nemo do a better job of establishing the underwater world inhabited by fish like Marlin and Nemo as well as setting up an entertaining story than the entirety of Bears does. You may know more about marine life than we do about bears in the Alaskan Peninsula, or vice versa, but what Finding Nemo gets right on a wide scale can boil down to two words: confidence and trust. Regarding the change in story, it’s fascinating to consider how Andrew Stanton was unable to stop himself from giving into his own desires with one of his later projects. The live-action film John Carter, for all of its many charms (and this writer does enjoy that film more than most people did), suffers from at least one problem that the 2001-era version of Finding Nemo did. In the 2012 film, it’s hinted early on that John Carter has suffered a great personal loss that has since turned him cold to siding with any man or cause; midway through the picture, interspersed with an action sequence, we see a flashback to Carter arriving home from the Civil War to see that his family has been killed in his absence. Stanton, in the Finding Nemo audio commentary, explains that “every Film 101” book tells screenwriters not to deliver backstory information in flashback, but maybe he just couldn’t resist.
On one hand, the mix of action and pathos in that scene in John Carter strikes a poignant balance; on the other, had the information been more clearly grounded for the audience earlier in the story, the emotions might be even more heightened. At the very least, Stanton and his animators made the right choice in Finding Nemo. Not only does the opening scene explain away all of Marlin’s future neuroses (he’s a bit quirky in the beginning, but far more laid-back), but it defines the marine world without oversentimentalizing it. As a counterpoint, almost immediately in Bears, Reilly “names” the three bears, which immediately invites us to wonder exactly how much of the following documentary was the actual story filmed by the crew, as opposed to something the film’s directors found in the editing room in post-production. We’re told that Bears documents a year in the lives of these bears, from the end of hibernation one year to the beginning the next, but can we know for sure? We are meant to trust in any documentary filmmaker—whether they’re making a nature piece or something else—and they should presume (but don’t always) that we’re worth trusting at all.
Bears, like most of Disneynature’s documentaries, sadly doesn’t feel like its audience is worth trusting with basic knowledge or with a tone that leans more on direct information than on obnoxiously lighthearted moments. Finding Nemo invites us into a more unfamiliar world, one we might only approach in guided snorkeling tours or the like, but presumes that we’re smart enough to not need our hands held throughout. Within minutes, we know about clownfish, the dangers of living right next to the open ocean especially when you’re at the edge of a reef, and more. After a few minutes, we see the opening credits, but before that, the emotional and physical stakes are clearly established as well as the basics of what it’s like to survive (or die) in this environment. Andrew Stanton is telling a story; Bears, and many recent documentaries like it, struggles to find one amidst imagery of animals looking either majestic or adorable.
Finding Nemo, as a whole, hovers between the old style of Pixar storytelling and the new; on one hand, it plays into what was, by 2003, somewhat of a familiar setup: the audience is introduced to a universe that’s adjacent to our own and often is one we take for granted, and the denizens of that universe are given recognizably human traits. Once the story picks up in the present and Marlin prepares to drop Nemo off for his first day at school, as an example, he’s beset upon by a trio of other fathers, all of whom assume he’s funny because he’s a clownfish. (If there’s any comedian who can excel at awkward anti-comedy, and has been doing so for decades, it’s Albert Brooks.) And when Nemo finds himself in a dentist’s aquarium, he’s joined by fish who are now dental enthusiasts and treat it like a spectator sport. But the animation is an even bigger leap forward for a company that has prided itself on its technological innovation since the beginning, and the emotions often trump the more familiar buddy-comedy aspect in the adventure. What’s more, by shifting a flashback to become the opening scene, the main character’s prickly attitude becomes understandable and relatable.
Marlin’s fears are logical to us—although he didn’t wait to rise to action against the barracuda that kills Coral, he’s personally responsible for Nemo’s wellbeing and doesn’t want to imagine anything bad happening to him—but they alienate him from everyone else, even his son. Only we were present in the opening scene; it’s alluded to, at least obliquely, that Marlin and Coral are new to the area; when Marlin brings Nemo to school, it’s as if every other fish is meeting either of them for the first time. By letting us in on the secret, as it were, Stanton not only exudes confidence as a writer but he allows himself to presume the audience is smart enough to go on this journey without needing some mystery to solve throughout. Arguably, the expectations we bring into a fictional film versus a non-fictional one are different, just as the wariness we may feel towards one type of documentary would be wiped away when watching another type. But Finding Nemo, like many of its predecessors, is not without realism; it takes place in the same world we occupy, so whatever rules we might expect to govern our world must also govern this one. We may not be that familiar with the life of a clownfish, but expert knowledge isn’t required to grasp the essentials of survival under the sea; the brief opening scene, in primarily visual fashion, gives us just enough information to make clear the struggles that a fish like Marlin must deal with daily.
Just as we must suspend our disbelief and put our trust in a filmmaker like Andrew Stanton, so too must they afford us a modicum of the same. The opening scene of Finding Nemo is, relatively speaking, a feat of daring: only in this fictional take do we get the presumptive sight of death striking a cute and cuddly non-human character. (Feel free to consider that a spoiler alert for Bears, which threatens its main characters’ safety frequently, but only that.) One of the most iconic moments in Disney history, similar to the death of Coral, is when Bambi’s mother got shot by a hunter offscreen. We do not need to see the bullet take Bambi’s mother’s life, nor do we need to see Coral get eaten by a barracuda, to know the immense loss and pain inspired by such a tragic action. And we don’t need to know every detail about what it’s like to live and survive as a deer, or a fish, or a bear; some things are instinctual and apply to human and animal alike. Where Finding Nemo goes right, and Bears strays wrong, is in assuming we all possess that instinct and don’t need to be treated like little children all the time.