Thoughts On: Finding Nemo (2003)
It has been a while since the last post, but today we continue our look at Finding Nemo.
In the previous post on Finding Nemo, we looked at the opening and its idea that, with freedom comes danger. And in recognising that this narrative is focused on building a family circle of trust, we see that the core conflict of this movie concerns the fact that the individuals that make up a family – for instance, children – need freedom to grow. This is why trust becomes pivotal in a family circle. However, as is questioned in the opening: What happens when tragedy strikes and a father’s ability to trust is eviscerated?
As we could imagine, a family circle is broken down and so needs reconstruction. And so this is what Finding Nemo explores. There are three major stages to Marlin’s quest in this respect; he must confront the loss of his wife, his lost sense of adventure and his lost son. What we will be doing today is exploring Marlin’s reconciliation with the anima, the female archetype: Dory.
A traditional, nuclear family is structured around a mother, father and, below them, children. In adhering to this idea, we find the opening of this story gives reason for this structure with the mother, Coral, being cautionary, warning Marlin of the dangers of freedom whilst he, the adventurer, embraces the danger. This equilibrium is shown to be the near-perfect equation for the family before the barracuda attacks. So, with Marlin embodying both Nemo’s mother and father as he raises him alone, he struggles to find a balance – as represented by his over-anxious (almost neurotic) nature. This disharmony – as we will explore in greater depth later on – leads to Nemo’s capture, and so has Marlin trail his way to…
… Dory. Dory is a classical device: the hero’s accomplice or guide. As in all adventures, Marlin has been called out of his known world and into the unknown. However, just like Frodo doesn’t go to Mordor alone, Marlin will search for Nemo with Dory. With Dory as the accomplice, her role isn’t just to provide help or impart wisdom – at least, not directly. Dory will test Marlin and, by fate (the hand of the writer), the two will grow together. So, in a way, Dory will help re-construct the family circle of trust by inadvertently re-assessing the roles of the anima and animus as the head of the family.
One of the most ingenious aspects of Dory’s character is then that she has short-term memory loss. To anyone who has followed the blog for a while or who has an interest in experimental filmmaking, the name Maya Deren will be familiar to you. Deren’s most famous film is Meshes Of The Afternoon.
Rife with symbolism, but wrought by a complex relationship between space and time, Meshes Of The Afternoon seemingly explores loss and confrontation in a relationship. One of the most expressive and unique aspects of this film is the manner in which it uses time as a formal device. Giving insight into this, Deren herself articulated her idea of female and male perceptions of time in the posthumous documentary, In the Mirror of Maya Deren.
What I do in my films is very distinctive. They are the films of a woman and I think that they’re characteristic time quality is the time quality of a woman. I think the strength of men is in their great sense of immediacy. They are a ‘now’ creature. A woman has strength to wait because she has had to wait. Time is built into her body in the sense of ‘becomingness’. She sees everything in terms of the stage of becoming
This quote (which can be heard heard in full here) explains her films as projecting a woman’s sense of time through waiting and through expanded time being compressed into a small frame. Deren goes on to imply that this sense of time that is unique to females may be inherent to them because of their biology (she references pregnancy later on), and so Deren’s statement on time is essentially that the anima, the female archetype, is defined – in a way – by a wider understanding of time than a man.
This idea speaks incredibly well to our concept of Coral as the cautionary maternal figure – she who has to think ahead of herself for the sake of her children – and Marlin as the adventure – he who concentrates on manipulating the now. With Marlin becoming a neurotic mother, he thinks too much about the future and entirely loses contact with his idea of ‘now’. But, when he meets Dory, he finds a female figure who is completely opposed to Deren’s conception of the female perspective; she has no grip of waiting and the future. This grip was lost because Dory lost her idea of the ‘now’ for so long (she has had short-term memory loss for so long) that she doesn’t have an idea of the long-term past. As a result, Dory has lost the male perspective of time (a projection of the animus – the ‘male’ attribute within females) for so long that she has also lost her female perspective. There is then both disharmony in Marlin, whose anima (as represented by his perception of time) is out of control and in Dory, who, because she is so bound to the now, doesn’t seem like a functional person. She then breaks all expectations of a female accomplice as she doesn’t remind the male of his hubris and stupidity like, for example, Hermione does throughout the Harry Potter series.
This representation of males and females in stories, whilst not a scientifically derived idea, resonates with the nuclear family because the female has her inadequacies and the male his, but, together, they form a functional union. When we look to the pairing of Dory and Marlin, we have two dysfunctional individuals who, speaking about Dory, have no grip on time and, looking to Marlin, tries to control time too much. Separated, they seem to be doomed to wander in an ocean of either timelessness or constant, deranging ticking. Together, however, it is implied that the two can maybe mute each other’s faults instead of emphasising them.
As a consequence of their abnormal perceptions of time, Marlin and Dory act in entirely exaggerated ways (considering their presence as the anima and animus of this story). This is realised almost immediately with their encounter with the trio of sharks.
Dory clearly has no concerns whilst Marlin is on the brink of an aneurysm. In a way here, Dory is infantalised and made out to be a naive child. This is so because her time-frame of being is so far in her past that it probably reaches into childhood. Marlin, too, is stuck in his past (the night in which his wife and children were taken from him), but this has expanded his view of time forward and kept him from seeing a brighter vision of the future with more naive eyes as Dory does. (The commentary on tragedy and misfortune here is that events of these kinds can radically shift your idea of space and time – which, itself, is quite profound). Because of their conception of time, the idea of the strange unknown that the two venture into is then exciting for Dory – vegan sharks seem like nice guys – but daunting for Marlin, so much so that he becomes a self-fulfilling prophet by triggering the fish-eating shark within Bruce.
What this emphasises is that Dory was, ultimately, correct in her ambivalence and that Marlin was wrong for attempting to control everything. As a result, Dory is already becoming the female accomplice who, like Hermione, teaches the males of their hubris and short-comings despite her initially seeming like the complete antithesis of this traditional archetype. As a result, what we see developing in this story is a strong relationship between the traditional (ideas of the nuclear family) and the non-traditional. Such is common in almost all Disney and Pixar films that see families comprised of unexpected individuals form. However, specific to this story, we are seeing Dory instil ‘male’ characteristics into her and Marlin’s relationship; she is the one who thinks on her feet and embraces the ‘now’ of adventure in this sequence, not Marlin.
This, again, happens in the next sequence in which Dory teaches Marlin how to “just keep swimming”. This allows them to venture into darkness and confront the monsters that loom below. However, this is where Marlin begins to evolve: he is becoming an adventurer again…
… and we see this perfectly with Marlin smiling in the face of death just as he found serenity staring into the endless ocean in the beginning of the film. The light that Marlin then sees by coming so close to death is then that he can wrestle with monsters in the unknown and come out alive – he, like Dory in the previous sequence – can think on his feet, lead and survive.
Let us not forget Dory in this sequence, however. As we learned previously, she can read. This is a rather questionable element of this story and, in some respects, a clear ex machina. But, Dory reading also reverses the idea that she is just naive. Though she is trapped in her past, she retains functionality and so manages to take what she learned in her past and bring it to her present. And to take a more poetic perspective, Dory being able to read is her being able to translate symbols of the past – writing that carves thoughts of the ‘now’ into material being that will, likely, outlast thought – into the present. With Dory reading whilst Marlin fights off the monster, we then see the roles of the previous sequence shift as the unknown becomes ever more (predictably so) dangerous. So, in parallel to the adventure of this story becoming more predictable, so does the relationship between Dory and Marlin; they assume more traditional roles. And, of course, the ultimate expression of this is Dory’s first character change; she begins to remember: P. Sherman 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney, P. Sherman 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney, P. Sherman 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney, P. Sherman 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney, P. Sherman 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney, P. Sherman 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney…
This repetition of course gets on Marlin’s nerves, and so it is at this point that Marlin attempts to abandon Dory.
It is here that Marlin believes he has become a unified and self-sufficient; he believes he has grown and is not in need of help – especially from someone as faulted as Dory. However, this is where the pair encounter the moonfish…
If we cast our minds back to the previous post again, we’ll remember that Coral, Marlin’s wife, is thematically linked to the moon with this beautiful transition:
We would certainly be stretching the metaphor without good reason in suggesting that Coral is brought back to life in this sequence. However, the sympathy that the group of fish show towards Dory, and the manner in which they mock and guide Marlin whilst being male, speaks a lot about the femininity of the moon that we explored previously and the fact that Dory is there to help and, herself, guide Marlin. After consulting the moonfish, which Marlin initially believes he knows more than, Dory then has to chase after him with important information.
Just like Dory lead Marlin into the darkness to find the mask, and just like she helped him escape the sharks, she wants to guide him through this trench here. But, Marlin’s confidence has been boosted since he defeated the shark – he has embraced his own animus – and so he chooses to ignore Dory; his ego pushes the anima to the side.
So, as with the sharks, Marlin’s over-anxious ego gets himself and Dory in trouble. However, Marlin is somewhat aware of this environment of the stinging jellyfish because he, himself, is a cautious clown fish that lives in an anemone. So, seemingly embracing the naive sense of adventure that Dory demonstrates, he then decides to make a game out of their escape.
Their adventure is becoming ever more dangerous, however. It then seems like this is the consequence – maybe the punishment – for Marlin ignoring Dory and not forming a relationship with the anima. And this is a recurrent idea; Marlin is constantly punished through others for his downfalls whether it be Nemo being captured or Dory being stung.
However, embodying the traditional hero, Marlin is willing to sacrifice himself to rectify his mistakes, and, for this, he is seemingly rewarded with a bit of luck.
So, after their encounter with Crush and their ride along the EAC, Marlin is confronted by the recent past. Dory wants to ask for directions, but Marlin refuses. After asking “what is up with men and asking for directions”, implying that the fault of the adventurer is that he thinks he can do things alone, Marlin decides to trust her – because, after all, this…
… along with the absence of his son, is the symbol of lack of trust (in turn, the dysfunctionality of a family circle without trust).
And so now, after Marlin lets Dory ask for directions, we have the archetypal sequence, the belly of the beast sequence, that we see in countless tales – the most obvious being Pinocchio. So, just like Pinocchio learns his lesson after visiting Pleasure Island, but nonetheless he has to enter the belly of the beast, so must Marlin. In such, he must not just gain a conceptual understanding from his mistakes, but act out the lesson he has learnt…
… and thus he actually has to let go and trust that things will be ok – or, rather, that he is capable enough to descend further into the belly of the beast and emerge by virtue of his newly unified being. And this unified being itself is represented by his reconciliation with the anima: Dory. What Marlin then learns here – what he integrates into his being – is that he can trust Dory’s intelligence, both her ability to miraculously read and talk to whales, as well as his ability to confront chaos; he does not understand these things, and neither do we, but with trust in each other and themselves, the two prevail. And thus, we get this image…
Again the moon motif emerges as Marlin realises that Dory is right; that she is his guide. The whale fluke below the moon then seemingly plays on the double meaning of fluke (meaning whale tail and lucky escape) by referencing the relationship between chaos and the heroic couple that is recurrent throughout this story; one is conquered by the other, the heroes overcome chaos, for example, they escape the belly of the whale, partly out of luck or destiny, but also because they are guided by something transcendent of themselves. This image implies that the transcendent being is the moon, possibly as a mandala symbolising Dory and Marlin’s union, but also an icon connoting the guiding anima.
Having come this far into chaos and danger, Marlin’s determination is unshakeable – he begins to independently become the adventure, leading Dory along the final stretch of their journey – and his reputation is allowed to precede him. So, just as he was granted a lucky pass after saving Dory from the jellyfish, he is also granted one here (as a consequence of his heroic actions with Dory, which, through story, have spread across the ocean) with his encounter with Nigel, who delivers him to Nemo….
It seemed that a new equilibrium had been reached; Marlin had reconciled with the anima and has by now seemingly conquered adventure by reaching Nemo, but, tragedy has struck again. In such, this equilibrium is destroyed; after being pushed out of the surgeons office, he leaves Dory despite the fact that she becomes a more complete person with him (she can remember things) and he a more complete person with her. But, without Nemo it seems like there is no point in sustaining the new circle of trust that Marlin has set the foundations for.
And it’s here where we will end things for today. We still need to explore the idea of adventure in greater depth and then look at Nemo’s role in this narrative, so look forward to more parts looking at this film. However, for now, what are your thoughts on Finding Nemo, especially in regards to all we’ve covered today concerning Dory.
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