Hook, Line and Thinker

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DISNEY/PIXAR

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Nemo's short fin — a deformity that does not slow him down one bit — became, says Stanton, "a metaphor for anything you worry is insufficient or hasn't formed yet in your child. Parents think their child's handicap is a reflection of the parent. They become obsessive and anxious over that, whether it is the child's ability to read or the way they walk. This movie says there is no perfect kid; there is no perfect father." And no guarantee that parents will ever have the answers. When Marlin asks the sea turtle Crush how a father knows when his kids are ready to swim out on their own, the wise old dude replies, "Well, you never really know. But when they know, you know — y' know?" Finding Nemo is about feeling one's way to knowing. It's about letting go and getting back.

To find out what their fish could and couldn't do, Stanton and his crew installed a fish tank and filled it with clown fish and blue tang, among others. Some became scuba divers to study their subjects more closely. They hired a "fabulous fish guy," Adam Summers, professor at the University of California at Irvine, who schooled them in the two types of swimming fish: rowers, who move their fins back and forth, and flappers, who move theirs up and down. By coincidence, Stanton had chosen one of each kind — a rower clown fish and a flapper blue tang — as his leads.

Any education is the process of learning how little you know. The Pixar animators had to learn a lot about what Stanton calls "the voodoo of underwater things. Things lose color when they go away from you and gain color when they come closer to you. There's crap in the water, and surge and swell." All this had to be analyzed or guessed at. "It was like somebody gave you a cake and said, 'O.K., figure out what ingredients it takes to make this,' but with no cookbook. And you're just going, 'I think I taste egg ... I think I taste sugar ...'"

Most actors who lend their voices to an animated feature can't even taste the eggs; they record their lines before the film is made and usually without other actors. So, even more than usual, the actor becomes a child, striving to please his coaxing, demanding father: the director. "There's so much info you're not privy to, and they've been living with this for years," says Dafoe, a grizzled delight as the fish-tank lifer who masterminds Nemo's escape from alkaline. "So you just have to give over and trust them." Or, as Brooks puts it, with a fatalism that is totally Marlin, totally Albert: "You hope it's going to work, and you think, If it doesn't work, I'd rather fail with them." For Brooks, there was one reason to take the role: "'Cause I have a 4 1/2-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl. Period." If they like it, Dad's a hero.

In so many ways, behind the screen as well as on it, Nemo is a find-your-inner-grownup story. For a decade, Stanton was pleased to assist — as writer and co-director — the charismatic Lasseter, who created the first Pixar shorts and masterminded the art of CGI storytelling. "We all think John is the best thing since sliced bread," he avers, "and we'll follow his lead anywhere." But Stanton honed and hoarded his Nemo idea before pitching it to his Pixar pals. "Part of it was ego," he acknowledges. "Here I am making these movies with these four or five guys. After a while I didn't know what part of it was really me. For my own life journey, I wanted to know, What could I come up with if I only had me to bounce off of?"

Plenty of guys had their agile hands on the finished product. But Stanton — creator of the story, co-author of the screenplay, director and voice of its most endearing featured creature — is the true father of Finding Nemo. And what a beautifully bubbly child this child of Pixar has spawned.

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