What scares us? Heights? Water? Sickness? Death? Change? Whatever our unreasonable phobias or everyday anxieties (sharks, in this reviewer’s case), Pixar’s latest feature suggests a treatment. Finding Nemo follows Marlin, a more-than-neurotic clownfish whose fears—of everything from raging predators to his son’s first day of school—become an unbearable limitation to his little family, and when his boy, Nemo, is captured by divers, both father and son have to do what scares them most. The narrative is standard Pixar/Disney material, but the principles at work are important. Marlin and Nemo both find they are more capable than they had imagined, and each learns to stop worrying by trusting the other. At the bottom, however, there is an idea that is both a little murkier and even more hopeful: the point at which the heroes overcome their fear is not the point at which scary things stop happening to them. Rather, it is the moment they decide that the good things they want are worth the scary experiences. The sidekick Dory’s enigmatic line spoken inside the whale’s mouth addresses this trade-off. If Marlin works so that nothing (read “nothing bad”) will ever happen to Nemo, she says, then nothing (read “nothing good or bad”) will ever happen to Nemo; to live courageously doesn’t mean to live without fear, but to live in spite of it, and to learn from both the difficult and the joyful moments.
What may be even more fun that learning the lesson—though a valuable one, both for skittery young people and worrisome parents—is pointing out references to common fears. Watch for the typical near-death experience, the hazing, the sky-diving sequence (“Does everybody have an exit buddy?”), and the awkward introductions at support group meetings. Watch also for allusions to films that market fear: Psycho, Mission: Impossible, and The Birds, just to get you started. Fear becomes material for comedy at least, and triumph at best, as the characters venture, experiment, trust, and ultimately discover a bounteous, if not completely secure, existence.