The Fins of the Father
Emru Townsend · February 29, 2004 | The most remarkable thing about Finding Nemo is that it's Pixar's weakest feature yet, but it still fires on more cylinders than many other movies. The second most remarkable thing is more interesting: its depiction of a close father-son bond.
As a general rule, live-action features rarely take a good look at father-son relationships, and when they do it's usually not so good for one or the other. Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson) is devastated by his son's kidnapping in Ransom, but the kid gets so little time to do anything other than establish himself as a cute moppet, so it feels more as if he's a prize to be won. And how many dads get knocked off so their kids can avenge them (say, Star Wars until Luke finds out Darth and dad are one and the same) or vice versa (Gladiator)?
Feature animation is well-known for missing parents, but dads tend to lose out more than moms. After all, no one ever speaks ill of missing moms (Belle's mom in Beauty and the Beast—one of the few with a single dad—is never mentioned at all), and missing dads are generally cads or misunderstood (Titan A.E., Treasure Planet).
There have been father figures, if not outright fathers. Hercules's title character seems to get along with his adoptive father for all of the thirty seconds we see him. Iron Giant's Hogarth at least gets to spend most of the movie warming up to Dean, but he doesn't really become a father figure until near the end of the film.
And lest you think this is strictly a North American phenomenon, anime doesn't fare so well either. The word "antipathy" was invented to describe Shinji's feelings toward his father in Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Ranma ½'s Ranma and Genma Saotome spend more time honing their martial arts skills on each other than anything else.
In Nemo it's kept simple: Marlin and Nemo love each other. Marlin is terrified of the fact that he has to relinquish some of the hold he has over his son in order to allow him to grow, and Nemo is annoyed that his dad won't let him do anything exciting. Marlin's fear is intensified by the violent loss of his wife and all of Nemo's unborn siblings, but other than that it's something that just about everyone experiences as a parent or child at some point in time.
The most important thing is that the love they have for each other feels natural. It's undeclared, yet obvious. And aside from the extraordinary circumstances, their interactions—including Marlin's anxiety and Nemo's petulance—is no more outsized than what real parents and children feel at some point. In short, while the movie may be a grand adventure, on a fundamental level almost everyone in the audience can relate to what Marlin and Nemo are feeling. It connects precisely because it's not broadcast, and no one has to shout "I love you!" across the watery expanse as the music swells.
It's worth noting that Nemo director and writer Andrew Stanton came up with the idea for the movie based on his own feelings as a father grappling with the reality of his young son becoming more independent. It's a tidy little connection: his feelings—perfectly normal but not insignificant—informed the story, and that was passed on to the audience. So maybe, with that as the glue, it's not so remarkable that Pixar's weakest feature is also its most popular.