We first meet Marlin on what's probably the worst day of his life. And things go pretty downhill from there. So, what makes this paranoid clownfish papa tick? Let's find out.
In the opening moments of the movie, we get a glimpse of Marlin before he becomes a dad and, to be honest, he seems like a pretty awesome guy. Sure, he's got some typical first-time parent jitters (at least one of the kids in these 400 eggs has got to like him, right?), but otherwise he's got a really sweet and playful relationship with his wife, Coral. And he honestly seems to love the ocean and the spot they've made their home.
That is, until the barracuda attack. This is probably the defining moment of Marlin's life. Though he bravely tries to help Coral and their eggs, Marlin is knocked unconscious and wakes to find that his entire family has become lunch. (Yep, definitely the worst day of his life.)
Well, everyone but Nemo:
MARLIN: There, there, there. It's okay, daddy's here. Daddy's got you. I promise, I will never let anything happen to you...Nemo.
Andrew Stanton's original script had these moments with Coral playing out in a series of flashbacks throughout the movie, but it just wasn't working.
For one, it was tougher to understand why Marlin had become so frightened and overprotective if we didn't know the tragedy he'd been through. By getting the full story up front, it helps us to overlook Marlin's faults. And, to be totally frank, Marlin has a lot of them.
After the barracuda strike, Marlin has become all kinds of neurotic. He worries about Nemo's ability to take care of himself. He worries about how well his son swims. He worries about the kid going to school. He worries about how dangerous the ocean is.
Is there anything Marlin doesn't worry about? Looking cool in front of the other neighborhood dads might be one thing.
Marlin might be a clownfish, but he doesn't know even one joke. This guy takes life way too seriously. And we're not saying that he's wrong—the ocean is dangerous—but Marlin actually believes that he can keep his son safe if he just panics about it enough.
And that's what eventually pushes Nemo over the edge:
MARLIN: Nemo, no!
MARLIN: You were about to swim into open water! […] You know you can't swim well.
NEMO: I can swim fine, Dad, okay?
MARLIN: No, it's not okay. You shouldn't be anywhere near here. Okay, I was right. You'll start school in a year or two
NEMO: No, Dad! Just because you're scared of the ocean […] I hate you.
That's the funny thing about kids. You can try to control them all you want, but, eventually, they just don't want to listen anymore. This is exactly what Nemo does. Marlin pushes him to it by jumping down his throat about swimming out into open water and not being ready for school.
Nemo has fins and is ready to swim out on his own. Marlin just can't accept it.
But, like any good protagonist, Marlin finally learns to overcome his flaws. As soon as he jets out into the ocean after Nemo, he's on an adventure that will teach him to find the courage, wisdom, and faith he needs to be a good dad to his son.
Of course, it helps that he meets Dory, whose optimistic outlook on life is the perfect balance for Marlin's now-is-the-time-to-panic pessimism. Dory's the one who shows Marlin that it's okay to trust other people to help (remember how she wanted to swim through the trench, not over it and into a field of jellyfish?).
She also helps Marlin let go—literally and figuratively—while they're both clinging to that whale's tongue:
DORY: He says it's time to let go! Everything's gonna be all right!
MARLIN: How do you know?! How do you know something bad isn't gonna happen?!
DORY: I don't!
In this intense moment, we can see Marlin finally realizing that he can't control everything. Sometimes you just have to let go (of a whale's tongue) and hope that everything works out (as you get eaten by a whale).
Okay, it's not the most relatable scenario. But you get what we mean.
Crush is a good influence on Marlin, too. Here's another aquatic papa who's willing to let his son make mistakes and learn. Marlin can't understand how Crush can be so confident in the future. What if something bad does happen?
But, neither Crush nor Dory knows for sure that things are always gonna be a-okay. They're smart enough to know that they can't swim around paralyzed by fear every second. That's not helping anything. It's like Dory says—"Just keep swimming!"
Marlin gets his voice from Albert Brooks, who has a reputation for being a comedian with a bit of a neurotic edge. Marlin's part was originally supposed to be played by William H. Macy, but after doing some recording, the folks at Pixar realized that he was just missing something. Maybe it was that slight touch of paranoia. We like to think so.
If you ever see your name in the title of a movie, you know you must be pretty important. Nemo is the whole reason that we're able to go on this little ocean adventure. So, what's up with this cute little clownfish from the reef?
When we meet Nemo, he's just your typical six-year-old clownfish who's super psyched to start school. His dad, on the other hand, is not so thrilled.
It's clear from the first few moments of screen time that Nemo's pretty reliant on Marlin. He gets stuck in some coral and his dad has to get him out. He holds his father's hand while he swims across the street. Nemo has clearly been kept in a super protective underwater bubble and he's fine with that. Better safe than sorry.
After all, the ocean is a dangerous place:
MARLIN: Now, what's the one thing we have to remember about the ocean?
NEMO: It's not safe.
MARLIN: That's my boy.
It also doesn't help that Nemo has his "lucky fin." Basically, that just means his right fin is smaller than his left one. But, Marlin has convinced Nemo that his fin is holding him back. He can't keep swim as well. He can't keep up with the other kids. Nemo's got a disability—wouldn't he be better of playing on some sponge beds with the baby fish?
So, right away we're pretty sympathetic to Nemo. Obviously, the kid loves his dad, but this whole the-ocean-is-dark-and-full-of-terrors routine is just a father-son disaster waiting to happen.
And sure enough, it happens almost as soon as Nemo gets a little taste of freedom.
Nemo's big turning point comes when he leaves for school. There's something about this moment that gives us the feeling that this is literally the first time Nemo's ever been away from his dad for more than thirty seconds.
And he uses his time wisely. To get into just a little bit of mischief touching "a butt" (he means "boat"):
TAD: Come on, Nemo. How far can you go?
NEMO: Uh, my dad says it's not safe.
MARLIN: Nemo, no! […] You were about to swim into open water! […] You know you can't swim well.
NEMO: I can swim fine, Dad, okay?
MARLIN: No, it's not okay. You shouldn't be anywhere near here. Okay, I was right. You'll start school in a year or two.
NEMO: No, Dad! Just because you're scared of the ocean […] I hate you.
It's important to note that Nemo is actually being really cautious here. Marlin's taught him well. But, he just absolutely loses it when his dad proves that he doesn't trust him to stay safe and he doesn't have confidence in Nemo's abilities.
The other fish dads aren't acting like this, are they? Marlin might as well be telling Nemo that he's a physically deficient dummy…in front of his entire class. No wonder the kid breaks out the big H-word. This is just too mortifying.
Of course, the first time Nemo takes a chance and does something a little bit risky, it turns out badly. Really, really badly. Nemo's scooped up by a diver on his way back to the reef and he finds out pretty quickly that his dad can't save him from every dangerous situation. Even if he wanted to.
Nemo gets whisked away to land…never to see his dad again. Or so he thinks.
Obviously, being fish-napped and taken to a strange place would be freaky for anyone, but it makes Nemo lose it. Think about it—he's never been on his own or had to rely on anyone but his dad and now he's a stranger in a strange land. Luckily, Nemo's in this tank with some pretty cool fish that are ready and willing to help him make a break for it.
Plus, he learns some stuff along the way. One of the easiest lessons for Nemo to take away from this whole experience would be to never disobey his dad again. After all, Marlin was right, wasn't he? The ocean is dangerous. Swimming off into open water is a bad idea. Nemo could swim right back into that anemone and never take another risk again.
But that's not what happens to Nemo. During his time in the fish tank, Nemo learns he can take chances and do extraordinary things. When he meets Gill, who also has a damaged fin, he realizes that his lucky fin doesn't have to hold him back. He can swim well. He can even swim up into a filter, block it with a pebble, and come back out again. Easy peasy.
By the time he meets up with his dad again, Nemo isn't just a helpless little fish from the reef. He's done things. He's taken chances. He's proved that he can accomplish amazing things. That's why Nemo doesn't shy away from saving Dory from the fishing net when it's time:
NEMO: We have to tell all the fish to swim down together!
MARLIN: No, I am not gonna lose you again!
NEMO: Dad, there's no time! It's the only way we can save Dory! I can do this!
MARLIN: You're right. I know you can.
Nemo has a plan and he can make it happen. He believes in himself and—for the first time—so does his dad.
Dory might not have been able to remember Nemo's name, but you might recognize it from another undersea classic. Captain Nemo was the mysterious submarine builder in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea…and that's exactly who Nemo's named for.
The name actually means "no one" in Latin. But, as we know by the end of this story, Nemo's definitely a someone.
When we first meet Dory, she's just swimming around minding her own business when suddenly she bumps into Marlin and instantly offers to help him hunt down his son. This tang fish is actually a great partner to have by your side… if she can remember who you are for more than five seconds.
Let's take a closer look at this little blue dynamo.
Okay, so we find out pretty quick that Dory's got some issues. The biggest one is that she suffers from short-term memory loss. Hey, at least she can remember her condition.
But she can't remember much else:
DORY: Hey, I've seen a boat. It went by not too long ago. It went... this way! It went this way!
MARLIN: Wait a minute! You already told me which way the boat went.
DORY: I did? Oh dear...[…]I'm so sorry. See, I suffer from short-term memory loss. […] I forget things almost instantly. It runs in my family… or at least I think it does. Hmmm… where are they? Can I help you?
All in all, trying to get help from a forgetful fish is pretty frustrating. Dory seems totally oblivious to the dangers around her—she willingly heads off to a shark party, complains there's not enough light while being attacked by an anglerfish, and hops on the tops of jellyfish during a race. Dory might be fearless, but she only because she doesn't remember to be afraid.
Dory's ditzy ways easily make Marlin lose his patience. She's one of those fish that causes delays and he just doesn't have time to lollygag through the ocean. He's looking for his son, dangnabbit.
And Marlin's not the only fish in the sea that Dory's rubbed the wrong way. Her family's is gone. She doesn't have any friends or companions to hang out with. Even if she did, she probably wouldn't remember them. Nope. Hanging out with Dory is not the easiest thing in the sea.
So, why does Marlin stick with Dory all the way to Sydney? Maybe it's because she's actually not as bad as she seems at first glance. Dory might be forgetful, but she's also unfailingly kind and generous. Think about it—she offers to help Marlin find his son without a second thought.
She puts herself in harm's way to hunt down a little fish whose name she can't even remember. Is it Nemo? Or Elmo? Or Harpo?
This little blue fish is also pretty darn smart. She reads human. And speaks whale. Where did she learn to do all this stuff? The world maybe never know. Her optimism and just-keep-swimming attitude is a nice balance to Marlin's totally pessimistic outlook on ocean life. Dory's ability to see the good and the positive is what helps her and Marlin escape many, many fishy situations.
And really, in the end, Dory is just right about so many things:
MARLIN: No. I promised [Nemo] I'd never let anything happen to him.
DORY: Huh. That's a funny thing to promise.
DORY: Well, you can't never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.
She might not be the brightest fish in the sea, but Dory manages to hit the nail on the head without really knowing it sometimes. It's because of Dory that Marlin finally learns to let go and allow Nemo the freedom he needs to grow and experience life. Dory teaches Marlin to see the bright side of the sea. He doesn't need to be so terrified all the time.
Maybe things will turn out okay just this once? Maybe they won't be swallowed by a whale after all?
Okay, so maybe the question we should be asking is why Dory sticks with Marlin. After all, he's not very nice to her and he keeps getting her into all kinds of scary situations. Why not swim off and find some other fish to bother?
But, it's clear that Dory gets something from Marlin, too. Mainly help for her memory and friendship issues:
DORY: No. No, you can't. Stop! Please don't go away. Please? No one's ever stuck with me for so long before. And if you leave... if you leave... I just… I remember things better with you. I do, look. P. Sherman, forty-two... forty-two... I remember it, I do. It's there. I know it is, because when I look at you, I can feel it. And I look at you, and I... and I'm home. Please... I don't want that to go away. I don't want to forget.
Dory knows that it's not easy to be with her and she appreciates Marlin's friendship. His constant presence in her life also helps with her memory loss. When she sees him, she remembers things. She knows that, with him, she has a friend who cares about her and wants what's best for her.
That's something we don't ever want her to forget.
Dory is voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, even though Andrew Stanton originally envisioned the character as male. He said that one day he was watching The Ellen DeGeneres Show with his wife and he watched the energetic host change subjects at least five times before finishing a sentence and he knew she would bring the perfect spirit to Dory.
Lucky for us, Ellen thought so too.
Imagine you've been kidnapped and taken to another planet where you're plunked down in a huge glass box with other humans. Not an ideal situation, to say the least.
But things might be a little bit more bearable in this nightmare scenario if you find out that your new human friends are as cool as the fish in the Tank Gang.
This is basically what happens to Nemo. He's fish-napped away from the reef and taken to live with other tropical fish in a fish tank inside a dentist's office. Things are bad, but they could be worse. He could have wound up swimming around with some real jerks.
But everyone in the dentist's office is pretty solid:
Gill (Willem Dafoe): A Moorish Idol with lots of scars and crazy dreams about escaping the tank and returning to the ocean from whence he came. He's also sort of the de facto leader of the Tank Gang.
Bloat (Brad Garrett): A Porcupine Pufferfish who blows up when he gets stressed out and then has trouble getting back into shape.
Peach (Allison Janney): A Sea Star who can read human (like Dory) and likes to keep a lookout at exactly what's going on in the dentist's office.
Gurgle (Austin Pendleton): A Royal Gramma fish who's a bit of a pessimist and a germaphobe. We love him anyway.
Bubbles (Stephen Root): A Yellow Tang who likes—what else—bubbles.
Deb/Flo (Vicki Lewis): A Three-Stripe Damselfish who always fights with her sister Flo. Seriously, Flo is crazy.
Jacques (Joe Ranft): A Cleaner Shrimp who keeps the tank looking fresh and clean (except when escaping) and activates the Ring of Fire.
Chuckles: A Goldfish who was Darla's present for her seventh birthday. Alas, poor Chuckles. We hardly knew ye.
All in all, this is a quality group of fish. There's not a bad one in the bunch (even if Gill is pushing this escape plan a little hard). This is really important because Nemo doesn't have to deal with any personality clashes in his new home. Hey, you've gotta be grateful for the small things.
Not only are these guys kind and caring when Nemo first enters the water, they also accept Nemo into their little club and offer to help save him from Darla's clutches almost immediately:
GILL: From this moment on, you will now be known as Sharkbait.
BLOAT/BUBBLES/GURGLE: Sharkbait! Ooh ha ha!
GILL: Welcome, brother Sharkbait!
BLOAT/BUBBLES/GURGLE: Sharkbait! Ooh ha ha!
GILL: Okay, Sharkbait's one of us now, agreed? […]We can't send him off to his death. Darla's coming in five days, so what are we gonna do? I'll tell you what we're gonna do: we're gonna get him outta here. We're gonna help him escape.
At a moment when Nemo is without family for the first time, the fish in the Tank Gang become like a surrogate family to him. They support him, they care about him, and they're there for him. Even Gill, who wants to escape so, so badly, cares enough that he won't put little Sharkbait in the path of danger again after the first failed filter-clogging mission.
When you compare this to another Pixar movie about vulnerable characters away from home and in a strange land for the first time, Nemo has things easy. Remember what happened with Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear at Sunnyside Daycare? We rest our case.
A note for aspiring fish owners: you probably cannot handle a Tank Gang like this. These guys would need at least a 200-gallon tank and probably wouldn't play very nicely with each other. Gill would be super hard to take care of since he needs specific food and water conditions. Peach would harass the smaller fish and die pretty quickly. Bloat might eat Jacques. Nemo and Deb wouldn't get along either.
No wonder these guys wanted to make it to the ocean.
What can we say about the dentist? Fish don't like him. People don't really seem to like him either. Seriously, we're surprised this guy has any patients at all.
We first meet the dentist while he's scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. He sees Nemo out there in the open water and bags him right up. And how does the dentist see this fish-napping?
DENTIST: Heh heh heh! Beauty, isn't he? I found that guy struggling for life out on the reef and I saved him.
Um, okay. So the dentist clearly cannot tell the difference between a dying fish and one who's attempting to swim back to his home and family. That's not a point in his favor. Not only did he steal Nemo away from his dad, he's planning on passing along the struggling little fish to his fish-killing niece, Darla. Huh?
Overall, the dentist seems like a pretty clueless guy. He's mostly into himself and the things he likes—such as collecting exotic fish for his own amusement. He's really not that great of a dentist either. His patients are constantly moaning in agony or getting teeth yanked out forcefully. Sure, going to the dentist is never fun, but it's definitely a pain when you've got this guy on the other side of the drill.
Fun side note: The Pixar Wiki says that the dentist's real name is Philip Sherman. That makes sense since the diving mask that drops off his boat has the address for a "P. Sherman" written on them.
Hey, that's one thing we can say for the dentist. His labeling methods did turn out to be pretty handy for Marlin.
If Marlin and Nemo are the father and son with the bad relationship in this movie, the sea turtles—Crush and Squirt—are the parent and child pair that everyone wants to be.
Marlin first meets Crush while cruising along on the East Australian Current after he saves Dory from the jellyfish. Crush admires Marlin's chutzpah in battling the jellies, but also shows the clownfish dad that part of being a parent is letting go of your kids:
MARLIN: Oh my goodness!
CRUSH: Whoa. Kill the motor, dude. Let us see what Squirt does flying solo.
SQUIRT: Whoa! Whoa! That was so cool! Hey dad, did you see that? Did you see me? Did you see what I did?
CRUSH: You so totally rock, Squirt!
See what he did there? Crush knew that Squirt had gotten into trouble, but instead of rushing over and saving him from failure, he gave the little turtle a chance to solve his problem on his own. And Squirt was super psyched because he achieved something on his own. Nice fathering, Dude.
And really, if you're going to take parenting advice from anyone, it would be an 150-year-old sea turtle, right? They've seen stuff. That's why Crush shares this nugget of fatherly wisdom with Marlin:
CRUSH: Aw, it's awesome, Jellyman. Little dudes are just eggs, leave 'em on the beach to hatch, then coo-coo-ca-choo, they find their way back to the big 'ol blue.
MARLIN: All by themselves?
MARLIN: But, Dude, how do you know when they're ready?
CRUSH: Well, you never really know. But when they'll know, you'll know, you know?
This is deep.
Marlin's run-in with Crush and Squirt is just another step on his journey to being a way better dad. He realizes that one of the mistakes he made with Nemo was not trusting him. He didn't believe in his son and didn't challenge him because he was so scared about what might happen. Crush helps Marlin move past his fears about become way more chill.
Nigel might just be a regular pelican hanging around Sydney Harbour, but he's definitely better than those psychopathic seagulls (mine!). Plus he's actually pretty vital to the plot of this movie.
How are fish in a fish tank supposed to get any info from the harbor? They need someone who can take flight to help them out a bit.
And Nigel's just the bird to do it. He's the one who first brings word to Nemo that his dad is on his way to get him:
NIGEL: Your dad's been fighting the entire ocean looking for you.
NEMO: My father? Really?
NIGEL: Oh yeah. He's travelled hundreds of miles. He's been battling sharks and jellyfish and all sorts of—
Without this little piece of birdie wisdom, Nemo would have never tried to swim up in the filter again and clogged the tank. Thanks, Nigel.
And, of course, Nigel performs his most heroic task when he takes Marlin and Dory up to the dentist's window and flies inside to cause a commotion. Nigel's really the only one who can give these fish a lift. Clearly, he's also the only pelican in the harbor that cares enough to help them instead of eating them.
Not only is he a friend to fish and pretty knowledgeable about dental procedures, without his airborne expertise, Marlin would still be trying to find Nemo. Nigel, we salute you.
This little girl is bad news—for fish at least. Once Nemo arrives in the dentist's fish tank, he finds out that he's going to a new, and more terrible place, real soon:
DENTIST: This here's Darla. She's my niece. She's going to be eight next week. Hey, little fella. Say hello to your new mummy. She'll be here Friday to pick you up. You're her present. Shh, shh, shh! It's our little secret […]
BLOAT: Oh, Darla.
NEMO: What? What's wrong with her?
GURGLE: She wouldn't stop shaking the bag.
BUBBLES: Poor Chuckles.
Yup, that's really awful news. But Darla's not only a bratty eight-year-old who has no clue how to take care of living things—she's also a ticking clock. Nemo only has a few short days before Darla is going to appear and whisk him away to yet another non-oceanic environment. That's seriously going to put a damper on his plans to reunite with his dad.
So, even if Darla doesn't shake little Nemo to death, he's never going to see his father again. Say it ain't so.
We'll just say one final word about Darla—and it's in her defense. She doesn't seem to be purposelessly killing these fish. She's just a really, really clueless little girl who does not get that her fishies don't like being jostled around.
You know who we really blame for Nemo's predicament? The dentist. Seriously, why would you pass a beautiful, rare, and hard to take care of clownfish to a girl who you just know killed the last fish?
Darla's just a kid, but her uncle should definitely know better.
Marlin and Dory run into these great big predators just a few minutes after leaving the safety of the reef. (We guess Marlin wasn't so crazy to be panicked about the dangers of the ocean, was he?).
Of course, it turns out there's no need to worry because Bruce, Chum, and Anchor are vegetarian sharks:
BRUCE/ANCHOR/CHUM: I am a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine. If I am to change this image, I must first change myself. Fish are friends, not food.
Well, that's a relief. Like the vampires in Twilight who don't kill humans, these guys are no danger to their little fishy friends.
Until, of course Bruce gets a little whiff of blood and goes into a feeding frenzy. Oops.
Mainly, these guys are hanging around to help Marlin and Dory find the diver's mask with the address written on it…and then to promptly lose it while trying to escape. (So much drama right out of the gate.)
This big blue stingray is Nemo's first teacher. His students seem to love him and he's pretty good and his job. (Did your science teacher ever write a song about the zones of the ocean? We thought not.)
Though Mr. Ray assures Marlin that Nemo's safe exploring the reef with him, the worried clownfish father's totally hung up on the idea that no one else can look out for his son quite like he can.