Much of Finding Nemo, Pixar’s fifth feature and the one to pull off the feat of setting nearly the entirety of its plot underwater, is a whimsical delight. From the oft-frenetic pace of the protagonist’s long journey (really, this is a road trip film of sorts) to the ensemble of humorous supporting characters encountered along the way, the movie brims with pleasures. But in the space of barely 90 seconds during its opening scene, Finding Nemo also accomplishes something brutally serious: introducing Pixar’s young audience to the concept of death.
Death in children’s cinema is nothing new. Pixar’s parent company, Disney, has been working that particular narrative device since almost the beginning—understandable given that the source material for much of its early movies was either fairy tales (Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs) or classic children’s literature (Pinocchio, Bambi). But while Pixar has always been defined by a sophisticated style of storytelling several cuts above most animated films aimed at a general audience, the company’s previous dealt more with pain and hardship as encountered in life, not death. And while that can be plenty tear-jerking in its own right—can anyone sit through Toy Story 2 without getting at least a little misty-eyed?—the finality of death was a matter heretofore unaddressed, given or take the fate of a certain hopping villain.
That all changed in the opening minutes of Finding Nemo. Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Coral (Elizabeth Perkins) have just moved into their new sea anemone home, the pair of loving clownfish prepared to welcome several hundred offspring into the world in a few short days. But as is so often the case with real-life tragedies, everything changes in an instant: A barracuda attacks, knocking Marlin unconscious, and when he comes to, his wife and all their eggs are gone, having been devoured by the predator. But in the midst of his grief, Marlin suddenly notices an egg fell to the ocean floor during the disaster, its displacement sparing the life of the one remaining child, whom he duly names Nemo, per his beloved Coral’s final request.
For all of the comedy and hijinks that follow, everything in the narrative is shaped by this foundational loss, and what makes it noteworthy is how it inverts the usual pattern of death in kids’ movies. Usually, it’s the child that suffers the loss; from the aforementioned Bambi on through to more recent films like Frozen, Kubo And The Two Strings, and even Pixar’s own Onward, the death of a parent or beloved older relative provides some pathos to the young protagonist’s story. But in what could be read as another early sign of Pixar’s interest in communicating not just with the children in its audience but also the adults, Nemo offers a scenario that speaks straight to the fears of any parent or romantic partner. Marlin’s subsequent overprotectiveness of Nemo is driven by the staggering loss he endured, and the film’s plot is in part a meditation on the need to let kids be kids, to not let the possibility of tragedy hinder the process of discovering the wonder (and yes, occasional dangers) of the world. Driven home by Thomas Newman’s lush, sweeping score, Finding Nemo argues that death, however emotionally devastating, can’t blind us to the necessity of living life. That’s heady stuff for a movie where a beach-bum turtle named Crush yells, “Righteous,” while riding an ocean current.