The Gospel According to Nemo

The Gospel According to Nemo July 20, 2012

Review of Finding Nemo, Directed by Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich


Finding Nemo (2003) ages well.  It is the best Pixar film, among the best films of the past decade, one of the finest family movies ever made, and, on my list, one of the greatest movies ever.  WALL-E (2008) is usually ranked as the best of Pixar—it ranks higher on and Metacritic—but compared to the simple sincerity of Nemo, WALL-E’s insistent romance is mawkish.

Nemo—the story of a father in search of his lost son—escapes cheap sentimentalism because it is a spiritually evocative film.  Its spirituality is evident in Dory.  In a lesser film, Dory would be a one-dimensional sidekick, written into the story for comic relief.  But in Nemo, Dory is more.  She is a true picture of having “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” (Hebrews 11:1). When she and Marlin are in the belly of the whale, she interprets for Marlin:  “He says its time to let go.  Everything’s going to be alright.”  Marlin: “How do you know something bad isn’t gonna happen?”  Dory:  “I don’t!”  Earlier, when Marlin quails to ask directions, she tells him to “give it a shot and hope for the best!”  And, famously, she perseveres.  “When life’s got you down you know what you gotta do?  Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.  Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…”

Dory is also a little scatter-brained: she suffers from short-term memory loss.  “I forget things almost instantly.  It runs in my family.  At least…I think it does.”  Again, her amnesia could have been used just for laughs, but the filmmakers refuse to mock Dory or make her ridiculous; instead, they turn her memory-loss into another opportunity for her character to show.  Because she has no short-term memory, she is incapable of pride, ambition, or bearing a grudge.  She talks freely with the whale, escapes, and sighs, completely unselfconsciously, “I wish I could speak whale.”  She rides the current with turtles, parts company, looks back and says with surprise “Hey look, turtles!”  She is constantly surprised, constantly grateful for the newness of everything.   And she is fearless.  “You can’t never let anything happen to him.  Then nothing would ever happen to him.  Not much fun for little Harpo.”

Dori’s amnesia is, believe it or not, a picture of God’s character.  When God forgives our sin, he does not grudgingly keep an eye on that sin, barely restraining himself from smiting us for it.  No, he promises “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more,” (Jeremiah 31:34).  God actually forgets, and this forgetfulness is part of his forgiveness.  After all, love “keeps no record of wrongs,” (1 Corinthians 13:5). Wouldn’t life and love be easier if we all could have a little amnesia now and then?

Marlin, as a dad, has more to loose in this world and thus more to fear. As a parent of a three-year-old and a two-year-old, I feel daily how parenthood is a contradiction, a combination of terror and joy, of protecting your kids while simultaneously letting them go.  Marlin learns to face his fears through his journey across the ocean.  His best line comes when he looks for the exit to fast-moving East Australia Current (“The EAC Dude!”):

Marlin: Where is it? I don’t see it.
Dory: There.  I see it!  I see it!
Marlin: You mean the swirling vortex of terror?
Crush: That’s it, dude!
Marlin: Of course it is.

He sees a danger that only days ago he would have fled from, but now laconically accepts.  Marlin forces himself to plunge ahead—to plunge into pitch darkness, cavort with sharks, swim through a school of poisonous jellyfish, and surf the swirling vortex of terror—to save his son.  It is a wonderful picture of fatherhood, and the moment when Nemo learns that his dad is “battling the whole ocean” to find him never fails to make me weepy.  We never get past wanting daddy to protect us.

But Marlin has to endure his own crisis of faith, which he does, literally, in the belly of a whale.  The symbolism is unsubtle but completely appropriate for a story set in the ocean.  The whale in Nemo is an enigma.  We are introduced to the whale with one of the great moments in American comedy—Dory speaking whale—but then given a strange scene as the whale eats Dory and Marlin.  Is the whale a friend?  An adversary?  Is he trying to stop them, help them, or eat them?  Is Dory actually speaking to him, or just making it up?

The whale gets no explanation.  We don’t find out why the whale eats them, nor why he spits them out.  Like Dory, we don’t actually know if something bad might not happen.  The whale is massive, terrifying, and powerful. All the other animals in this animated cartoon speak English; the whale alone remains alien.  It is implacable—ineffable.  “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” (Hebrews 10:31).  Yet the whale is, in the end, gracious and helping.  Marlin lets go, trusts, and finds deliverance.

Nemo is a beautiful film.  Not just the images, which I only dimly remember—I’ve only seen it once, nine years ago; though I’ve heard it dozens of times as my children watch it.  I admit I’m partial to the film because it was the first movie date I ever went on with the girl who became my wife, because the first time I met my father-in-law he greeted me by speaking whale, and because my three-year-old will pipe up at completely inappropriate times asking “Are you my conscience?”  But I suspect even without those personal associations, I would still recognize in Nemo a beautiful story with resonant themes.

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