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Finding Nemo

Annesu de Vos

Begin binnekort in Suid-Afrika draai.

Finding Nemo has rightfully attained the distinction of being the highest-grossing animated feature film in history, even before ending its first run in North American theatres - proof that Disney still knows how to make a great movie! It is a pity that they do not produce films of such quality more often. If they did, we would be in theatres more often.

Pixar has become synonymous with skilful computer animation, and the Disney-Pixar partnership is clearly a happy one. The gorgeously shimmering tropical underwater scenery and the sheer power of the open ocean (in contrast with the grimy but still rather beautiful Sydney harbour, opera house and all) are portrayed as breathtakingly as one would expect from Pixar. One hopes the sequel (when it arrives, which it undoubtedly will) will live up to the expectations set by the original.

My six-year-old has insisted on seeing Nemo “in theatres” no less than seven times, and we will be purchasing it on video as soon as it is available. On every occasion when we saw it (in theatres all over Toronto), we noticed that the majority of the audience were grown-ups, even though strictly speaking it is a kids’ movie. The film’s tremendous box office success is obviously attributable to its universal appeal, but there is more to it than just that.

Reviewers have noted that this movie, apart from providing superb entertainment for all ages, effectively conveys messages on several levels. I wish to add a caveat for parents of kids younger than five: the barracuda attack at the beginning can be quite frightening for the younger patrons. You would do well to explain that there will be a few scary bits involving barracudas, sharks and anglerfish, and to talk somewhat educationally about the food chain and the ecology of the ocean by way of preparation.

In contrast with the scary scenes we have a very upbeat, vegetarian “lion shall lie down with the lamb” message hidden in the riotously funny twelve-step meeting led by Bruce the shark who is attempting to quit being a “mindless eating machine”. Might humans, too, aspire to this lofty goal in some distant, more spiritually evolved future? The sharks in particular hold a dim view of humans, who “think they own everything” and are “probably American” in thinking so! This perspective is further illuminated by the humour at the expense of Dr P Sherman, the dentist who prefers scuba diving to dentistry any day of the week. The shenanigans in Dr Sherman’s office would certainly contribute to the pervasive view held by the animals in this story, which would seem to be that humans are basically lazy, pleasure-seeking, self-indulgent and above all, careless machines.

The symphonic orchestral score, apparently implemented by synthesisers and samplers only (among the credits I counted only five individuals principally involved with the creation of the music, yet the score sounds like the work of a full orchestra), is simply awesome. The music moves as swiftly as the East Australian Current itself, yet can be quite atmospheric at times, e.g. the moment where Gill turns around to show Nemo that he, too, has a damaged fin, but adds that it has never stopped him from swimming. Clever musical and contextual allusions to the classics (Jaws, Psycho - the music when Darla appears!) enhance the entertainment value for grown-ups, while the entire audience, regardless of whether they “get” all of it or not, stays riveted.

This movie is, of course, about parenting: that tricky business of learning to “let go” while still protecting the young from all the dangers “out there”. Nemo’s father Marlin, permanently traumatised by the loss of his young wife Coral and “over four hundred eggs”, is obsessed with safety. His anguish is every parent’s anguish. His fear is, alas, rooted in a realistic perspective based on experience. Marlin’s perception of the ocean (the most important thing about it being, as he diligently teaches his son, that it simply “is not safe”) is analogous to any sensitive parent’s perception of this world. This acknowledgement of the nature of things relates, on a spiritual level, to the deepest and most troubling question of all time: “How can a merciful God allow Ö ?” The answer that Finding Nemo presents to this age-old, albeit unspoken philosophical dilemma, is very Zen. In the words of Dory: “Just Keep Swimming!”

To be more precise, one answer for individuals is just to keep swimming. Groups of fish working together - a principle also demonstrated in the fish tank under the leadership of Gill - can achieve vastly better results by pooling their resources of strength and intelligence and directing the force of their swimming in such a way that they may obtain a desired result: if all the fish captured in the net just keep swimming down, the net will break loose and the weight of their collective force will liberate them from entrapment. An omniscient, omnipotent, but therefore (as it would appear) necessarily indifferent God has not just “allowed” us to exist rudderless at the mercy of the vicissitudes of randomness, but has created in us the will and the ability to co-operate for the common good. Consider that if nothing ever happens to Nemo, nothing would ever happen to him. That would not be much fun for Nemo, as Dory explains to Marlin. (Dory’s “short-term memory loss” seems to be compensated for in ample measure by other kinds of intelligence, most notably wisdom.)

Finding Nemo is about the immutable truth of the hazardous nature of our existence as sentient beings. Marlin’s epic journey to 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney, is in fact the story of everybody’s life. For when Marlin asks Dory at a crucial moment: “How do you know that nothing bad is going to happen?” she shouts back: “I don’t!” He then, having absolutely no other choice, follows her advice and lets go of the surface he is clinging to, landing in a rather Jonahesque touch, on the fountain generated by the whale, who delivers them to the relative safety of the harbour. Finding Nemo is saying very clearly, but in a rather subtle and often humorous way, that perfect love drives out all fear.

We highly recommend this movie for all age groups, and in particular for all people who have questions and spiritual troubles with living in a violent world. Rather than providing “the” answers to those questions (for who in the world of humans would be so preposterous as to try?), what the movie shows while entertaining its audience in the most lavish fashion imaginable, is a certain way of being in the midst of fear and danger: truly transcendent.

21 November 2003


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