Thoughts On: Finding Nemo (2003)
A film we’ve briefly covered before, but will now be looking at in a multiple part mini-series.
The last time I watched (and then covered) Finding Nemo, I felt that the film was basically perfect, but lacked a hint of ambiguity or openness. As a result, Finding Nemo’s subtext seemed air-tight and very self-evident: this is a movie about a pessimistic, anxiety-ridden father learning to let his kid be free as he can only grow from duress. This implied a more general purpose of the adventure movie; they all teach characters through experience and physical conflicts that inform inner journeys, and in turn guide characters towards defeating the demons deep within them. However, whilst Finding Nemo can certainly be viewed in this way, having watched the film again, I think I have stumbled across the nuances of this film that profoundly complexify the subtext. So, having re-visited and re-thought this film, it’s clear to me that Finding Nemo is about, to reference Meet The Parents, a “Family Circle Of Trust”.
As novel of a device that “The Byrnes Family Circle of Trust” becomes in Meet The Parents (also Meet The Fockers), I think this movie works so well as a family comedy because the theme of trust and unity in the family group is deeply embedded into people. Recognising this gives Meet The Parents an ability to silently articulate something very true and resonant whilst Stiller’s Greg continually ‘focks’ up; from truth comes comedy. However, whilst Meet The Parents is about someone alien entering this circle, Finding Nemo is about this circle being constructed with focus on the environment in which it exists.
To start where the film does, we find ourselves at the drop off.
This is the point where the coral reef ends and the ocean begins; this is suburbia facing a chaotic jungle. This suburbia, as Coral, Nemo’s mother, puts it is “desirable because of the great schools and the amazing view”, but, to paraphrase the rest of her sentence, do they really need of all of that space?
The difference between the suburbs, the city and the jungle is an idea that is implied throughout the opening of this movie. The city is a jungle of its own, one that is slightly civilised and highly developed, but, it is a jungle nonetheless. Escaping this jungle, you find yourself on the fringes of human chaos and in suburbia. However, when you attempt to escape people, you stray ever closer to nature’s embrace – and nature is not very civilised. So, when Coral asks if all the space is necessary, Marlin says, “These are our kids…they deserve the best”. This suggests something somewhat disharmonious with our concept of chaos; why, if you want your kids to have the best life, would you put them in the face of danger? The answer is, as Marlin suggests: it’s in their best interest. Whilst the “space” Coral references is freedom, and freedom comes with dire risks – after all, to be free is to be outside of the bounds of human control – humans intrinsically yearn this mobility and choice.
I remember hearing a joke, probably from Joe Rogan if my memory serves me right, about zoos and how they are like prison for animals that make them depressed and, in essence, prevents them from being true animals. We’ve all heard this before, but a debate on the ethics of zoos is not the fundamental basis of Rogan’s joke. He goes on to add a caveat: giraffes are fine with zoos. Putting aside all real-world evidence, here it is suggested that giraffes are happy in their enclosures because they are no longer running from lions; they, lucky for them, get to escape nature, its freedom and its chaos. Bringing this back to Finding Nemo, the commentary on people through the idea that space, freedom and danger are best for children is: humans are not giraffes, and nor are we clown fish who hide in anemones all of our lives. Though humans have a serious tendency to box themselves into cities and civilisation, we all recognise that space and freedom are essential – which is exactly why holidays, breaks, weekends and free time are so important to us. Freedom is being allowed to look at calamity and walk towards it. Civilisation is the human zoo or prison, however, when civilisation functions, it preserves freedom like it were a precious source of life and vitality (which, in a way, it is). So, when we return to this image…
… we see a representation of the ideal suburban life. In a balance between the structure of human civilisation and the chaos of nature, Marlin and Coral are in heaven and they feel their kids will be, too; they will have the freedom to be real ‘people’, to run out into the ocean and play, but also go to school and learn. As said, however, utopias do not seem to exist; with freedom comes danger…
The barracuda here is nature’s response to Adam and Eve frolicking in the Garden of Eden. We see this idea represented in many suburban drama films, everything from Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans, a 20s silent film about a couple living on the outskirts of a city, All That Heaven Allows, a 50s melodrama about a widow and her grown children in suburbia, and American Beauty, which is about a dead-inside suburbanite man who yearns for meaning. The barracuda in all of these films manifests itself on the edge of suburbia as a commentary on the non-existence of paradise (even in the upper-middle-class home) and nature’s tenancy to inject chaos into structure. The barracuda in Sunrise is then the City Girl who attempts to destroy a couple by luring the husband towards murder (towards murdering his wife). In All That Heaven Allows the barracuda is the selfish, judgemental and restrictive reactions of the protagonist’s family to her, a lonely house wife, falling in love with a young bachelor; it is the old 50s television set that is the barracuda as this the the symbol of her suppression. In American Beauty, the barracuda is existential imprisonment; it could have been Lester’s descent into childishness, the crazy, cheating wife, the enraged teenage daughter or her slutty friend. However, these are all red herrings that disguise the true threat, which is the highest expression of suppression: the war vet that fell in love with a Nazi soldier (a confounding commentary on a broken individual who, by virtue of his being, is incredibly far removed from the constructed normality of suburbia).
There are a plethora more examples of films about civilised monsters living in houses (we could reference films such as The Housemaid, The Maid, Psycho, House, etc.). However, with Finding Nemo, we find one of the purest and most literal expressions of monsters prowling on the periphery of suburbia as an age-old commentary on the idea that there is no such thing as a utopia: we are not giraffes happily wandering in captivity and so must face, and live amongst, the lions of the plains. However…
… walking this tightrope between the human prison and nature’s monsters is hard: you can fall into either end of the deep pool – and we see this beautifully realised with the emergence of darkness in this scene; it starts off bright, then the monster comes, bringing with it shadow that, once it is gone, completely veils the scene, Nemo, Marlin’s only light in this darkness.
When Marlin’s children are destroyed, it is understandable to see him scramble away from nature and into civilisation (the busy coral reef city), happy to embrace the cage that it represents. (It would be important to note that this film doesn’t plainly criticise city life – but we’ll come back to this at some point later). However, bringing with him his child into this prison marks the construction of a faulted family circle of trust.
What we see realised here with this hair-raisingly beautiful transition that is bound together wondrously by the melancholic piano overture is the concept of unity and the broken. As we touched on when looking at Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind, the Taoist (Daoist) creation myth suggests that The Way gave birth to unity – which then evolved into duality, trinity and then a multitude of creatures. This idea materialises in Chinese mythology with the story of Pangu, or, P’an-ku. In certain incarnations of the Chinese creation story, Pangu was the first creature who separated the gestating universe – an egg encapsulating heaven, earth and chaos. And much of this is represented by the famous Taoist symbol, the Taijitu:
**This is actually the modern and expanded Taijitu, the Bagua
Whilst we won’t go into the depths of that story or this symbol, Carl Jung dedicated much of his time to the study of similarities across religions, and, in turn, what this implied about the psychological make-up of humanity. One symbol that he found to be highly recurrent was the mandala, which is what the Taoist symbol above is. Mandalas were, in Jung’s view, and as is widely quoted, “the psychological expression of the totality of the self”. Circular symbols to Jung then represented not just the holistic individual, but the different levels of the individual self which are bound to the ego and collective and personal unconscious.
Whilst I’ve dropped a whole lot of key words there, the fundamental point is that mandalas are a symbol of unified living – living as a complete person in a compete familial group – and our specific example, the Taoist mandala, comments on the birth of humanity coming from an egg; from chaos, earth and heaven. When we return to this image, we then have many tools to see its depths.
Nemo in Marlin’s fin here is all that remains of himself as a holistic being; his ego, his personal sense of self and his sense of self in relation to the world is in this little spec of light. We can deduce this as Marlin is now a parent and this is all his world revolves around. And so, what this egg, a mandala, suggests is that Marlin has been born anew. However, this egg also represents chaos, hubris and tragedy….
The scar on the outer casing of the egg is then a reminder to Marlin that he attempted to become a free fish and live on the boundaries of civilisation for the greater good of his children, but ultimately failed; he was not strong enough, smart enough, in enough control; fate was stacked against him and he was powerless. The transition from this scarred egg, this fractured symbol of creation that embodied chaos, heaven and earth (Marlin’s future), to the moon is then deeply touching…
It is hard to articulate exactly why, but the moon has always been a symbol of romance and solidarity; the earthly human’s closest celestial body. The moon, which is often seen as a she (for instance, in Spanish, the moon is la luna; it is gendered to be feminine), is the antithesis of the sun. The sun, which is one of the most fundamental gods (often seen as male) that ancient civilisations worshipped, represents the the day time and so human reign. On the other hand, the moon is a solitary beacon in the night. The sentimentality that is so easily attached to the moon is then predicated on humans being weak and lost in darkness. We could then understand the moon to be a romantic view embodied by the abstract feminine archetype as it is akin to nurture; a nightly mother. To juxtapose Marlin’s new life, Nemo, the egg, with the moon leads us to think about Coral, his mother, and a distant concept of creation and guidance, high above the ocean. (And, on a side-note, whilst many religions attribute creation to a celestial location – amongst the stars or floating in the universe – the sea, or a great body of water, is also a prevalent motif that is suggested to be the abstract and metaphorical cradle of life). This transition is then so affecting as it joins together the concept of heaven (the deceased mother, Coral), earth (Marlin’s new life) and chaos (the tragedy that initially tore these items apart), which leads us to see unity and harmony in the trichotomous image.
To return again to Nemo, we have the final commentary from the opening of the narrative. This is Marlin’s new life and self, it is fractured, but, linked to a heavenly, feminine body that looks down upon him. Nemo will come to be Marlin’s projection of self that has to confront the duality of his being and of his world. There was once himself, the giddy adventurer, and Coral, the cautionary maternal being. They lived between the prison of civilisation and the chaos of the natural world, and were dealt a tragically devastating blow by chaos. Alone and embodying the lost anima, the female, Marlin takes shelter in the civilised prison; he finds a new unity without the fundamental duality; the tension between the male adventure and the female preserve and the tension between natural chaos and human structure.
We will not continue to discuss every scene of this film in such depth as things will become tedious and I’m sure we’ll exhaust this narrative by attributing too much detail. However, with the understanding of this narrative through the opening scene, it is clear that the conflicts and the journey ahead will cause our adventurer to confront certain inner demons. In such, Marlin will have to re-establish a duality within himself to transform what was a scarred egg – a mandala representative of his being; Nemo – into a solid family circle of trust, a new and wider mandala of unity.
To re-establish himself and his family, Marlin has to reconcile with three concepts: the anima, the world and the son. We will then look at the rest of this narrative through three representations: Dory, adventure and Nemo. This will be done across two or three more posts, so look forward to more.
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