Oceans of Possibility: Permission, Disability, Control, and Finding Nemo

Disney/Pixar

Finding Nemo is a weird fish. It’s a travelogue, a prison-break story, a chronicling of an off-couple platonic relationship. It’s an adventure for kids, and a reminder to parents that they need to learn to let go in order for those kids to be able to grow up. It’s also a meditation on anxiety, disability, and the very human desire for control, all wrapped up in stunning production design. The entire film is a mood piece, an expression of fear, joy, adventure, and inner turmoil. And what better metaphor for the terrifying possibilities presented by the wider world than the heaving depths of the open ocean?

*

As a neurotic Disney-parent type, Marlin (Albert Brooks) is relatable, if a little broad; the anxieties that define him anchored in his justifiable fear of being unable to protect his only child. He wasn’t able to save his wife or their clutch of eggs from a predator in the movie’s prologue, and now buries his grief under layers of coping mechanisms. Brooks’s line deliveries add levity—a sad clownfish without a sense of humor is an ironically funny creature—but Marlin’s pain swims close to the surface. He betrays his fears whenever he opens his mouth, frantic and rushed, trying desperately to head off disaster every time his lone surviving son Nemo (Alexander Gould) looks like he might wander out of sight.

Marlin’s a sad but believably consistent character; even before his confidence is shattered in the fatal attack, he needs to be right. His current anxieties are an extension of the person he once was. Prior to the disaster, he carries a wrinkle in his brow that sets him apart from the other fish: a stamp of worry, the look of someone who squints to see the negative. When discussing the names of their future children with his wife Coral (Elizabeth Perkins), he asserts that he wants “most of them to be Marlin, Jr.” It’s a tell that betrays his desire to make little copies of himself without fully grasping that his children are their own people, with their own lives. Flash forward to Nemo’s first day of school: Marlin has named his son in accordance with his late wife’s wishes, but he’s still trying to force the boy into his own anxious shape.

Some of these incidents are funny. Marlin urges Nemo when they’re leaving their anemone to go out, then back in, repeatedly, Brooks delivering the repetition in a cheery cadence. The motion, cribbed by the animators from real-life clownfish keeping time with the pulse of sea anemone tentacles, is mapped onto a sort of caricature of anxious behaviors: Marlin’s fear and need for control are fundamental pieces of who he is. They’ve just been exaggerated over time, a set of coping mechanisms that have solidified, like sedimentary rock, into an armor that’s becoming harder and harder to crack.

Other times, Marlin’s helicopter-parent anxiety is smothering. Nemo has a small right front fin, which Marlin calls a “lucky fin” to Nemo’s face, but a “gimpy fin” behind his back to his teacher. He’s told Nemo his whole life that he’s not a strong swimmer, that he has to be careful, as though being disabled has revoked Nemo’s chance to experience the world on his own terms. Whenever it seems like Nemo might stray into danger, Marlin heads it off, herding him away from bumping into coral, holding his breath when Nemo joins his class at school, trying to avert disaster before it can strike.

Marlin’s life is ordered around careful rules about what he—and his son—can and can’t do. Marlin’s default is “can’t.” Furious at the thought that Nemo might have tried swimming away from the reef, he shouts, “You think you can do these things, but you just can’t, Nemo!” The nature of “these things” is vague; “these things” could mean anything, or everything. Brooks’s voice breaks when he says “can’t” to his son. It’s a betrayal of Marlin’s feelings that he’s terrified he might lose his son—which he will, in just a few moments’ runtime, when human divers appear, terrifying alien monsters with bright lights and huge masks. In his attempts to limit his own son’s freedom, Marlin has been unable to see his own limitations. There’s nothing Marlin can do to prevent the divers’ appearance or their actions. They will upend Marlin’s world by taking his son. In turn, Marlin will break his own rules, swimming out into the open sea to bring Nemo back.

Even after venturing out, Marlin orders his life and his dealings with other fish around what he thinks he can and can’t do. He repeatedly states his discomfort with doing anything new; his fear is only barely outweighed by his desperation to find Nemo. Whenever he’s faced with something new, he hesitates, as though waiting for permission to do the thing he’s afraid to do, a fear of failure so paralyzing he behaves as though it might just kill him

The ocean is a terrifying place; who knows what danger might be lurking in the depths, just out of sight. In many cases, Marlin’s fear is justified: he cheats death repeatedly, encountering a hungry anglerfish and a forest of jellyfish, the first one actively hostile, the second unfeeling in the threat it poses. Shortly after leaving the reef, and immediately after meeting his companion Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), he’s pulled into the company of sharks. That the sharks are in a twelve-step program intended to cure them of their hunger for fish is a joke lost entirely on Marlin. His misgivings about the sharks are proven correct when one falls prey to his own lust for blood and gives chase. The entire sequence is staged around a sunken submarine, rotted out from the inside, coated in barnacles and seaweed, surrounded by underwater mines suspended from thick chains.The uncanniness of the setting underlines Marlin’s discomfort with the unknown: things are not the way they were designed to be. Fish can swim through human-made corridors. There are no rules any more.

*

Everyone Marlin meets ends up becoming his foil in some way. Dory is the most obvious, a free-spirited fish who suffers from short-term memory loss. As Marlin’s most consistent traveling companion, the movie spends considerable time drawing out the ways in which her cheery attitude differs from his neuroses. For Dory, every new person is a new chance to make a friend (sometimes over and over again, if she fails to remember their first meeting from a few minutes ago). For Marlin, every new encounter is a new chance to fail, to be unable to anticipate the unwritten rules of being a person in a society, to be made to look foolish.

Marlin’s personal rules are designed to protect himself from the unknown. He’s upset whenever someone else suggests doing something he thinks is impossible or foolish; he’s stayed so close to home and so far inside his own head that he has a hard time understanding, at first, that other people might think about things differently than he does. Dory’s presence becomes a long session of exposure therapy.

Sometimes the lessons are heavy-handed: in one uncertain situation, when the two are trapped in the mouth of a whale, Dory has to explicitly tell Marlin, “It’s time to let go. Everything’s gonna be okay!” When Marlin asks her how she knows whether or not “something bad is going to happen,” she replies, surprised that he would even ask, “I don’t!” Marlin surrenders, momentarily, without fully giving up his need to be right. Learning to let go can be an epiphany, as it is in the whale. More often than not, it’s an ongoing process of practice, which Marlin has to keep repeating in his long trek to find his son.

Once he’s been taken from the ocean and away from his father, Nemo finds himself in a differently suffocating environment: a fish tank at a dentist’s office overlooking Sydney Harbor. The tank’s plastic plants and brightly-colored decorations are just as uncanny to Nemo as the open ocean is to Marlin; Nemo’s proper environment is the Great Barrier Reef, swimming with life and possibility. Even after he quickly realizes that the denizens of the fish tank are friendly, Nemo still knows that he doesn’t belong there. 

At first, panic gets the better of him. Unaware of the hazards of the tank, Nemo gets sucked into the intake tube for the tank filter. He goes limp, crying out for help from his father. He’s been taught implicitly that he’s incapable of doing anything for himself; when he’d gotten stuck in some coral back home in the reef, Marlin sternly instructed him not to move before extracting him from the crevice. Marlin has forced himself and his son into an unhealthy relationship in which Nemo was always in danger and Marlin was always called upon to save and protect him. Marlin’s inability to recognize Nemo as capable stifles his son’s ability to sort out his own problems.

One of the tank residents, Gill (Willem Dafoe), refuses to recognize Nemo’s disability as a limitation. When Nemo tells Gill he can’t free himself because he has “a bad fin,” Gill simply responds, “Never stopped me,” and shows off his own injured fin. He talks Nemo through the motions of swimming out of the filter intake tube until Nemo’s free. Gill’s graceful in the water, but the movie’s also frank about his injury, a spiderweb of scars next to a skeletal remnant of a fin. Gill’s fin is a bit of a shock for Nemo—and, by extension, the audience—but it isn’t something to be ashamed of, or to be hidden away; it’s just a souvenir from Gill’s first escape attempt.

Finding Nemo doesn’t give a particularly nuanced accounting for disability. It operates primarily on the binary between “can’t” and “can,” two simple concepts that can be shaped into a compelling character arc for both Nemo and his father. The movie’s less concerned with Nemo as a portrait of a disabled child and more with Marlin’s general attitude as a parent; Gill’s acclimated to his own disability well enough that he swims gracefully, as though he’d never been injured at all, the “can” to Nemo’s “can’t.” Still, it is remarkable how unremarked-upon Nemo’s fin is, beyond being an identifier. No one looks down upon his disability, except maybe his own father. Even then, the conflict isn’t about Nemo being less-than, but rather about Marlin’s excuses around his overprotectiveness. Despite Marlin dubbing Nemo’s fin a “lucky fin,” Nemo’s absorbed the lesson: when he first meets Gill, he calls his own fin a “bad fin,” a moral judgment over something that is in reality neither good nor bad.

The film takes Nemo’s disability at face value, without prejudice, albeit simplistically. It treats Dory similarly: short-term memory loss is a disability too, and Dory is just as capable as Marlin, though she goes about solving their problems differently than he does. Whether Marlin himself could be disabled is up for debate; his desire for order and his coping mechanisms could be read either as excessive, unhealthy behaviors, or as coping mechanisms from someone on the spectrum, depending on the situation and the way you tilt your head. The film certainly sees his behavior as unhealthy, an obstacle to overcome on his journey to find his son, a personal failing in a way that his son’s physical disability is not.

*

Fortunately for Marlin, there is life after loss. He can thrive—and his son can grow, and his friendship with Dory can blossom—if only he can manage to let go of his expectations and his need for control in every situation. If anything, disability is a loss of control, the inability to do things that others take for granted. It isn’t a consequence for some moral failing, nor does it make the disabled any less-than. Loss of ability and loss of control both come for us all in the end.

Marlin’s long journey finally comes to an end when he can finally see his son for who he really is: his own fish. Immediately after the two are reunited in the cold drab waters off Sydney Harbor, they’re faced by the shadow of a fisherman’s net. Marlin finds himself on the outside and Nemo on the inside. Nemo insists on helping the fish trapped with him to escape, even though he could just as easily swim through the net to safety. Marlin, terrified that he’ll lose Nemo again, this time for good, backs down when Nemo tells him “I can do this!” Nemo dives into the depths of the net to tell the other fish to swim down together toward the bottom, a trick learned from Gill in the dentist’s fish tank to evade capture.

There’s a poetry to the beginning and end of Marlin and Nemo’s journey, bookended by encounters with small boats. At the outset, the boat is a symbol of the fearful unknown. At the end, the boat remains an unknown, something to be feared. Marlin and Nemo are a united front with a better understanding of each other, no longer isolated and afraid. They’re surrounded by others, and with those others come the possibility for support and collective action. If they all waited for permission to act, they’d be stuck in the net forever. They know they can’t control the ocean’s currents, nor the pull of the fishermens’ net. Rather than fatalistically accept this knowledge and their fates, they break the rules. They swam down when they’d been expected to panic; they kept their heads when they’d been expected to relinquish all autonomy. They find they didn’t need the permission in the first place.