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.
She Sleeps with the Fishes
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.
Father Fish Knows Best
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.
Learning, Growing & Swimming
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!"
The Voice of Marlin
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.