"Finding Nemo" tells the story of father and son clownfish, Marlon and Nemo. When Nemo is taken from the reef where they live, Marlon has to search the ocean to rescue him. A simple enough story, but Andrew Stanton is such a fine writer, it becomes something quite extraordinary - a masterclass in screenplay. Here's why.
2. Archetypal story-telling.
All good films follow archetypal stories. "Finding Nemo" has three.
The first, is the quest, specifically in this instance, for a loved one. Quest stories require a hero (Marlon), a sidekick (Dory), obstacles (sharks, jelly fish, whales), life lessons (from turtles and Dory) and a destination (Sydney).
The second is the prison break out. The hero here is Nemo. He is the outsider who will not settle to the system, unlike all the shop bought fish who are more content with their lot. He is the young rebel, aided by the old hand, the grizzled Gil, who has the brains and the wit to plot a way out. Prison break outs require complicated planning, solidarity, failure, and eventual success for the hero at least.
The thirds is rites of passage. Here Nemo has to learn to be who he is, and his father, has to learn to let him grow up.
Archetypal stories work best when they are familiar, in an unfamiliar setting. And what better way to do that then to set them in an underwater world amongst tropical fish?
3. The protagonists.
There are two protagonists in the story. Marlon and Nemo. Like all good heroes, they have their flaws.
Marlon has lost his wife and 499 eggs to a shark attack. He is therefore over-protective of his only remaining child, and fearful about the world. He wants to keep Nemo safe for ever. But he needs to learn that he has to let Nemo go. Nemo on the other hand wants to be a good son and to fit in. He needs to learn he is more capable than he thinks and if he trusts in himself he can achieve anything.
The antagonists are various, the scuba-diving dentist that captures Nemo, the various sea creatures Marlon encounters, the dentist's niece, Darla, and the ocean itself.
One of the reasons "Finding Nemo" is so successful is that it is beautifully paced. This is because it follows a clear 5 Act Structure.
Act 1 Set up & inciting incident
Act 1 introduces us to Marlon and Nemo, we see their flaws and their obvious love for each other. This builds up to the inciting incident - the moment for both characters when everything changes. This comes about 15 minutes in when Marlon realises Nemo's teacher has taken the class to the edge of the reef, where the shark killed their family. Marlon tells Nemo he has to come back with him, and in a rare moment of defiance, Nemo refuses. Instead he takes up his class mates dare, swimming out to touch a boat that's anchored some distance away. As he is coming back to face the music, a deep sea diver grabs him, leaving his father literally reeling on the reef. Now, Marlon will have to overcome his flaw, in order to rescue his son, and Nemo will have to overcome his, in order to escape.
Act 2 - Progress
The story now splits into two, following each of the characters in turn.
Marlon - Marlon recovers his breath and follows the boat, but he loses it. In a panic he asks different fish if they've seen it. No-one can help till he meets an excitable Blue Tang called Dory. She's seen the boat and he follows her, only for her to stop and ask what he's doing. It turns out she suffers from short term memory loss so, whilst she is keen to help, she's not necessarily the best person for the job. A memorable encounter with vegetarian sharks, brings them into contact with the scuba diver's lost mask. Dory is able to read it and remember the address. Now they know Nemo is in Sydney, they can find him.
Nemo - We catch up with Nemo as he is being placed in a fish tank. He doesn't know where he is and frantically tries to escape, hitting the sides of the tank till someone explains to him. When the tropical fish discover he's from the ocean they are a bit suspicious, at first, till Gil, the old hand, welcomes him into their midst and they ask him to join their club.
Act 3 - Progressive Complications
Marlon - Marlon and Dory's journey is fraught with danger. After escaping the vegetarian sharks and an explosion, they have to find directions to Sydney. Marlon manages to offend a school of fish by his grumpiness, but Dory persuades them to help. Their path takes them through a crevice, the fish warn not to go above it. Marlon thinks this is stupid and manages to trick Dory into forgetting. They go above and hit a mass of jelly fish. Now their journey is a terrifying bounce across the top of the jelly fish avoiding being stung, and Dory is nearly killed. They are rescued by sea turtles who swim with them along the East Australian Current. When they exit, the sea is so polluted they can't see anything, except, a huge threatening looking whale. How are they going to get to Sydney now?
Nemo - Meanwhile in the fish tank, Nemo discovers the scuba diver is a dentist, and the reason he has been caught is a present for his niece Darla,. Darla is a terrifying brat, who has killed her last pet. Gil hatches an escape plan. They need to block the tank filter, so the dentist will clean the tank, leaving the fish in plastic bags by the window. They'll roll off the edge, across the street and into the sea. The trouble is that Nemo will have to swim up a tiny tube with a pebble and if he fails he could be sucked back into the motor. The other fish are worried that it will be too dangerous and beg Gil not to go through with the plan. Nemo tries, but as he is leaving, he gets stuck and the pebble doesn't hold. The motor starts and he is being dragged back. The fish pull him out with a piece of weed, but he is weak and exhausted, and they agree it is too dangerous to try again.
Act 4 - Crisis
Marlon - Dory tells Marlon she can speak "whalese" and as a result they are taken up in the whale's mouth. Marlon is despairing trying to escape, and angry with her. Suddenly the water starts disappearing, and Dory says the whale wants them to let go and follow it. Marlon thinks this is madness, till he remembers last time he didn't follow Dory, he nearly got her killed. The moment he decides to literally "let go" is the moment he realises sometimes he has to trust things will work out. The result is that the whale shoots them out in its spout and they are at their destination, Sydney.
Nemo - The day of Darla's arrival is drawing near. Nemo is in despair. But then Nigel, a friendly pelican comes and tells Nemo all the ocean are talking about Marlon and Dory's search for Nemo. At first Nemo can't believe it, but when Nigel remembers his dad's name, it gives Nemo the courage to act. As the other fish watch in horror he shoots up the tunnel with the pebble, and escapes the other side. The fish tank becomes dirty. The escape plan is working
Act 5 - Resolution.
In Act 5 Marlon and Nemo's stories rejoin to create first a false resolution and then the final proper resolution. Marlon and Dory meet Nigel who takes them to the dentist's studio. Meanwhile, the fish wake up to discover that the dentist has introduced a laser cleaner which has cleaned the tank. Darla arrives and Nemo is transferred to a bag for her. He plays dead in the hope he will be flushed down the toilet. When Nigel arrives with Marlon and Dory, Darla is distracted and chaos ensures, with the dentist chasing after the pelican, and Nemo being bobbed around. Marlon sees Nemo and thinks he is dead, the dentist chases Nigel away before he realises his mistake. Nemo's bag bursts and he manages to flip down a drain to the ocean.
Marlon thinks it is all over and abandons Dory, trying to make his sad way home. But Nemo is just behind. He meets Dory who is her usual helpful, but forgetful self. Just as we think she's not going to remember, something he says brings all the memories back, she rushes him to Marlon and they are reunited. Dory gets caught in a fishing net, and it is up to Nemo to rescue her. Marlon momentarily thinks Nemo can't but remembers just in time the lessons he has learnt, and Nemo is strong enough to say he can do this. He rescues the fish and Dory and they return to the reef. The film ends as it begins with Nemo going off to school, to "have an adventure."
It's perfectly paced, it follows all the rules, it tells archetypal stories, which is half the battle. But that wouldn't be enough on it's own. The film works so well because of the wonderful mix of anthropomorphism and animation. The characters all look and behave like sea-creatures should, but they are believably human. Dory's enthusiasm and forgetfulness is such an exuberant combination make her immensely lovable. The moment when Marlon abandons her and she cries "But I remember better when I'm with you" is truly heartbreaking. The laidback sea turtles are chilled out beach bums surfing the currents of the world. My particular favourites are the sea gulls, that attack in formation, saying "mine, mine, mine" - a perfect mix of real animal behaviour and description of what they might in fact be saying. At the heart of is is a truthful father/son relationship that says everything parents need to know about letting their children grow up (and one of the reasons I cry through my laughter). The dialogue is cracking and the whole thing zips along with great humour, summarised by the brilliant post-script at the credits. The fish tank fish, have managed to make it to the pavement. They roll in their bags over to the edge of the sea. Success! They roll into the water. The last one makes it to great applause. Then someone says, "how do we get out of the bags?!
Sheer bloody genius.