Finding Nemo (2003) Starring voices of Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould, and Willem Dafoe. Directed by Andrew Stanton.
Children's movies are usually designed to please, not children, but parents. Most children's movies depict adults, especially parents and parent-like characters, as near-perfect gods, wisely doing what's best for the children. If one of those children does not follow his parents' every order, you can bet that child will spend the rest of the film learning a "valuable lesson" and the film will end with the child regretting having ever thought for himself. Often the film ends with the child apologizing to his parents for having displeased them. Such movies are tolerated by children who have yet to find anything better, but filmmakers count on parents to bring their children to these movies and make the films successful.
Finding Nemo, directed and co-written by Wall-E's Andrew Stanton, begins with our protagonist, a clown fish named Marlin, enjoying married life until a barracuda takes his wife and all but one of his children: a tragic and poignant opening for a G-rated movie. Marlin becomes obsessed with protecting his surviving son, Nemo, from physical danger.
One day Nemo gets tired of being held back by his fretful father and boldly defies his father's order not to swim into open water. This right here is remarkable. In most children's movies, the filmmakers refuse to show young characters this bold for fear of upsetting parents who want their children to see role-models of submission, not role-models of strength. Usually even the "bad kid" defies his parents only behind their backs and then breaks into a sweat when his parents find out.
But Finding Nemo breaks the rules of parent-pandering. Here, Nemo is willing to stick close to his father's reasonable rules while his father is absent. But when Marlin appears and distrustfully gets in Nemo's face for even approaching open water, and Marlin insults his son by once again denigrating Nemo's swimming abilities, Nemo resists and swims out in defiance. Nemo swims toward a boat. When his father angrily threatens, "If you put one fin on that boat ..." Nemo promptly slaps his fin on the boat, giving young moviegoers a reason to cheer.
The experienced movie-watcher, of course, will predict that tragedy must quickly befall young Nemo for his defiance, and it does. Nemo gets scooped up by a scuba diver and placed in a dentist's fish tank. From here, it becomes two stories: Marlin's quest to find Nemo, and Nemo's own quest to break out and return.
Too often in pop-culture, children in peril just sit around helplessly waiting to be rescued by the adults. This leaves adults as the heroes even when the child is supposed to be the protagonist. Finding Nemo makes clear that Nemo would like to be rescued by his father, but when that help is not available, Nemo heroically takes the initiative and begins working on his own escape. Though Nemo does not succeed without assistance from an adult fish, his initiative makes him both a good hero for the story and an empowering role-model for young viewers.
Just as important is what's missing from Finding Nemo. There are no scenes where Nemo regrets his defiance. He misses his father, but he never preaches to the audience that he got what he deserves for being strong. Rather is it Marlin who gradually comes to see the error of his own ways, finally admitting this tragedy is his fault, declaring, "Maybe [Nemo] wouldn't have done it if I hadn't been so tough on him." Marlin watches other parents allow their children freedom and bask in their children's love, and Marlin learns to be a better parent.
Will Marlin ever get another chance? Will Marlin see Nemo again? Dude! It's a Disney film; of course he will.
And when Nemo and Marlin are reunited, it is Marlin who apologizes to Nemo. Marlin, given a second chance at parenthood, gives his son more space, more freedom and respect and trust; and in return, he earns his son's love, forgiveness, and respect.
Viewers young and old can enjoy this movie made by people who have actually thought about the world from a child's perspective.