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Finding Nemo: And those along the way 6 min read

Finding Nemo: And those along the way

Finding Nemo reminds us that life is a tough slog, and we rarely, if ever, make it through alone.

By Cary Littlejohn
Finding Nemo: And those along the way Post image

As promised, this begins The Pixar Project, where I’m going to review all of the Pixar films in the run-up to the Dec. 25 release of Soul. If you know a friend or relative or Pixar aficionado who’d enjoy this project, please pass it along.

Finding Nemo continued the trend that explicitly began with Monsters, Inc. where the storyline expressly addresses the complexities and emotions of parenthood. Pixar’s everlasting appeal has been, as previously mentioned, its ability to craft fun, thoughtful, heartwarming films that are as much (or more) fun for parents as they are for the kids their principally aimed at.

Monsters, Inc. gave us the impression of parenthood, the subtle reminder that family isn’t only biological, with the giant Sulley cradling the tiny Boo in an illustration of fatherhood that’s instantly recognizable.

In 2003, Pixar stepped up the parental connection by featuring its first pair of main characters biologically in those roles of parent and child. Marlin, the overprotective clownfish father, is introduced to the audience in a truly harrowing opening five minutes, where he loses his wife and the majority of their 400 eggs, save for one, Nemo. With that short primer on Marlin’s life, it’s easy for viewers of all ages to understand why he’d be terrified to let Nemo go off on his own for the first day of school. Marlin knows what it’s like to lose everything, and the world feels much safer and more manageable when he’s in control. But the illusion of that control is apparent to the viewer, especially any parents in the audience. When Marlin was there and “in control,” he lost his wife, through no fault of his own. When Marlin arrived to take Nemo away from the first day of school was when Nemo got taken by the diver, right in front of his father’s eyes. It’s a lesson Marlin will come to learn throughout the adventures of the film: Life can always be dangerous, and there’s not much we can do about it. Parents dropping off their kids for the first day of kindergarten have long since known that, no matter if their kids are screaming and must be pried from their legs or if the kids flit away into the classroom and don’t even look back.

If life isn’t about the destination but the journey, then the film, more than simply a celebration of parenthood, is a celebration of those we meet along the way.

We learn this from the simultaneous journeys of both Nemo and Marlin. Nemo, young and inexperienced and forever told of the twin terribles of the world’s danger and his disadvantage due to a “lucky fin,” encounters new challenges and faces them bravely. Marlin, on the other hand, has to relearn what one can surmise he knew once upon a time ago: The world can be an exhilarating and surprising place, full of those who’d help out if ever given the chance.

Sometimes we encounter those who need us as much as we need them. Dory, the adorable blue fish dealing with a non-existent short-term memory, is just such a friend. She becomes a true companion for Marlin, one he’d risk his life for, and it’s not until nearly the end of the film that we learn just how much this random adventure in search of Nemo meant to her.

Dory: Please don’t go away. Please? No one’s ever stuck with me for so long, and if you leave, if you leave...I just remember things better when I with you. I do, look. P. Sherman, 42, 42 — I remember it; I do. It’s there, I know it is because when I look at you, I can feel it. And, and I look at you and I’m home. Please. I don’t want that to go away. I don’t want to forget.

Sometimes we encounter those who help us while they’re sorting their own stuff out. Marlin and Dory meet such unlikely frenemies in the form of the sharks who are going through the 12-step program to stop being mindless eating machines. Though their intentions are pure, the slightest whiff of Dory’s blood sends Bruce, the Great White shark named as an homage to the mechanical shark in Jaws, into a feeding frenzy. He tried to eat them, sure, but in doing so, he helped Marlin and Dory, total strangers at this point, bond much more quickly than they might otherwise.

Sometimes we find help from those who completely make us reconsider our way of life. For Marlin, Crush, the 150-year-old surfer of a sea turtle, helped him see a completely different take on parenting. The sea turtle was the perfect avatar for the opposite viewpoint of Marlin’s over-protectionist style. The turtles’ very existence, that they survive birth on a beach and find their way back to the sea, requires a level of laissez-faire parenting unfathomable to Marlin. Crush and his gang give Marlin something to fuel his search: the answer to a question Nemo asked on that first day of school before he was taken. Once Marlin learned how old Crush was, it was one of the few things he mentioned explicitly when trying to escape from the whale’s mouth.

As someone who’s guilty of going through the world trying to avoid the more annoying aspects of it, this message hits home all too often. That’s one of the best reminders that comes from reporting on the lives of others. But mostly I think about it in my personal, not professional, life, the people who’ve saved me along the way.

There are the friends who challenged me in law school, not to become a better lawyer but rather a better version of myself. Those who allowed me to figure out what I thought about a wide range of issues and to lean into everything that makes me who I am.

There are those I taught with in Teach for America, who inspired me toward idealism and persistence in the face of overwhelming odds.

Lawyers who showed me, through their brilliance and tenacity, a life for which I wasn’t cut out.

An ex-girlfriend who gave me permission to be 30 years old and somewhat lost in life but still loved me anyway, always encouraging me to write more and more.

The family of faculty and friends I made while pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. I can only describe it as a sense of cosmic homecoming when I stepped onto that campus, surrounded by smart people who loved the art and craft and purpose of journalism and storytelling. As Dory said when she’d found Marlin: I’m home.

Home now is not so much the place but an ideal. My sister and brother and I haven’t lived there in quite a long while, but they are the center of my map, though one is in the Pacific time zone while the other is in the Eastern time zone and our parents are on Central time.

Like Nemo, I’d be lost without my parents, whose support has been emotional more than physical for some time now.  Before that, I remember telling them I was going into Teach for America upon graduating from law school, and how they thought I was crazy. But they let me go. I remember telling them I was giving the practice of law another shot and how relieved they sounded. I remember asking my mom, nervously and sheepishly, about the idea of going back to graduate school years later when I was an unhappy lawyer. She showed me nothing but support. I called them, like only the most privileged of us can, after a painful break-up, and didn’t ask, but simply stated, “I need to come home.” They took me in. Most recently, I took a job in Wyoming, almost 1,400 miles from where I was living with them. Though I’d made plans to tackle the trip alone, at the last minute, my dad took off work and came out here with me. We took turns driving the U-Haul truck, 24 hours straight through, only stopping for gas and to eat.

Sometimes, no matter all the help you find along the way, an insanely long trip into uncharted waters with your dad is a powerful reminder of everything that led you to that moment, and it can be life-changing.

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