My students use the word epic to describe anything that they think is really awesome.
An epic, really is a long narrative poem with a hero fighting a battle of universal significance.
You might be surprised to know that Finding Nemo has a lot in common with some of the stories which are legitimate epics. Like the Aeneid and Odyssey, Finding Nemo is about a hero on a journey. Maybe calling it epic is a misnomer, but I will certainly call this story mythic.
Toward the end of the movie, Marlin finds himself in the belly of a whale. What happens to Marlin there is an archetypal event. It’s archetypal in that it is a type of event that turns up again and again in stories across a broad range of times and cultures. One of the most familiar, of course, is the biblical story of Jonah.
The Hero’s Journey
In his The Hero with a Thousand Faces, mythologist Joseph Campbell identifies the “belly of the whale” experience as one of the stages of the hero’s journey. He says that this sort of event can occur just as well in a temple as a whale, but wherever it occurs, it is a necessary step in the hero’s journey as he strives to complete his mythic quest.
The “belly of the w hale” experience is one where the hero does not conquer, that comes later, but is instead swallowed into the unknown. Here he contends not with external enemy, but part of himself, and in this encounter, something must die; it is “a form of self-annihilation,” says Campbell. This is a painful, but necessary process, for if the hero encounters his enemy or attempts his great task before he has dealt with himself, the quest would end in failure.
Marlin’s Heroic Journey
Before his adventure began, Marlin could not venture away from the safety of the reef. Not since his mate, Coral, and all their offspring, except Nemo, were killed by a predatory fish. This tragic event shapes his entire life and he believes that world beyond the reef was hostile, evil even. His worldview profoundly affects his parenting and Nemo is beginning to strain against his father’s over-protectiveness.
Marlin’s paranoia precipitates an uncharacteristic act of defiance by Nemo which results in his capture by divers. He is taken away to far off Sydney. Marlin goes after him. He leaves the reef because there is only one thing he fears more than the open water—losing Nemo.
But just because he leaves the reef, doesn’t mean that he’s found any kind of courage or that he has changed his mind about the dangers of the ocean. He’s still at the beginning of his adventures. Marlin enters the phase of the hero’s journey that Campbell calls “The Road of Trials.” World literature is full of these tests and ordeals. Often with a supernatural helper, the hero begins to understand that “there is a benign power everywhere supporting him in his superhuman passage” (Campbell).
Although Dori isn’t necessarily supernatural, somehow Marlin has a helper which couldn’t be better suited to guide him. Dori is Marlin’s opposite. She has what Marlin lacks. Their difference is symbolically represented in colour. Marlin is white and orange; Dori is black and blue (blue is opposite orange on the colour wheel). More importantly, Dori has no short term memory. Dori can’t remember; Marlin can’t forget.
The Road of Trials
On the perilous road of trials the hero learns a great deal. And Marlin has a lot to learn.
Marlin’s world is simple—too simple. He sees the world in the simple terms of safe and dangerous—good and evil, if you will. The ocean beyond the drop off is simply a very dangerous place and you just don’t go there.
On the road of trials, Marlin learns that his worldview is not adequate and that the world is more complex than he always believed.
His first lesson is that what appears dangerous isn’t necessarily so. The three sharks are actually very nice fellows. But they do have some very dangerous weaknesses. This encounter seriously challenges Marlin’s binary thinking.
The next encounter on the watery road of trials is with the mindless malevolence of the abyssal angler fish. This encounter, although confirming Marlin’s paranoid worldview, shows Marlin that evil can be overcome. Not only does he overcome evil, he actually uses it against itself when he employs the fatal lure to shed light for Dori’s reading of the Sydney address on the ski mask. He had to overcome evil in order to acquire essential information for the completion of his quest.
Then next trial follows the conversation with a school of fish that teases Marlin. Felling slighted he wants to move on as quickly as possible. Because he’s not in the mood to listen, he misses vital information. Dori hears, but, of course, forgets the warning the time they get to the rock. She doesn’t know why, but she thinks that they should go through a cleft, and not over the rock. Marlin ignores Dori’s input and chooses the latter route based only on appearances—the cleft looks more perilous, but again, appearances deceive.
Because of his impatience and arrogance, he is forced to deal with the jellyfish—evil here is passive. It is Marlin’s foolishness that places them in peril—he’s responsible for this one.
The road of trials has problematized Marlin’s worldview. Good and evil are not nearly as simple as before—he learned that what looks evil might not be, what seems good might be dangerous; he learned that good isn’t the same thing as safe. He also discovered that sometimes we are a bigger problem that what we call evil.
The Meeting with the Mentor
Marlin and Dori have earned a rest and they find it on the EAC with a bunch of sea turtles. This is actually a time of preparation that often precedes the greatest trial the hero faces on his mythic journey.
The most important part of this preparation is instruction on parenting from Crush, the turtle, who functions as mentor. Marlin observes Crush’s parenting in action. Squirt, Crush’s son, accidently drops out of the current. Marlin is alarmed and ready to solve the problem for the young turtle. Crush stops him saying, “Let us see what Squirt does flying solo.”
The young fellow regains the current on his own and is ecstatic. “Whoa, that was so cool! Hey Dad, did you see that? Did you see me!? Did you see what I did?” This is the feeling of accomplishment that can only come with facing and overcoming difficulty. This is something that Nemo has never experienced, and likely won’t unless something changes.
On the journey the lessons have been taught, and this last piece of wisdom imparted by Crush applies all the lessons to an act of parenting. Marlin now has the knowledge, but this knowledge has not been internalized. Marlin still hasn’t really leaned—knowing is not the same thing as doing. Before Marlin can rescue Nemo, let alone be the father that Nemo needs, the fear resulting from the death of Coral and family must die. This happens in the belly of the whale.
The Belly of the Whale
Marlin bashes his head against the baleen wall. He can’t get out. He blames Dori. He has no hope. The quest is doomed and he will not be able to tell him how old sea turtles are. He laments, “I promised him I’d never let anything happen to him.”
Dori says, “That’s a funny thing to promise.” She explains, “You can’t never let anything happen to him then nothing would ever happen to him.” This is essentially what Crush told him, but his fear will not allow him to live it.
The whale stops and the water begins to drop. Dori trusts her partial understanding of the whale’s instructions go to the back his throat. Marlin has a lot more difficulty trust. He is convinced the whale is eating them.
Hanging onto the surface of the whale’s tongue above the abyss of the whale’s throat, Dori tells Marlin, “He says it’s time to let go.” Literally, let go of the tongue, but also to let go of the tragedy in the past that has shaped his view of the world. His history must no longer define his life, and it certainly can’t define Nemo’s.
“How do you know something bad isn’t going to happen?” he asks Dori.
She replies, “I don’t.”
He releases his hold on the tongue and plummets into darkness. The downward movement is symbolically toward death, but the fall changes into the upward movement of resurrection. He and Dori are propelled out of the whale’s blowhole in a spray of water.
They are in Sydney.
Campbell says, “Allegorically, then, the passage . . . through the jaws of the whale [denotes], in picture language, the life-centering, life-renewing act.” The hero’s emergence is a rebirth.
We know what happens next. The hero is now ready to complete his quest and after the belly of the whale, success is virtually assured. Marlin, with some help, successfully rescues of Nemo. This is a victory, but the real battle had already been won in the belly of the whale.
Master of Both Worlds
We know Marlin has truly been transformed for on the journey home, he allows Nemo to risk his own life to save many fish caught in a net.
There is a moral to the story; this movie offers some pretty good advice on parenting. But, like all the great stories, it bears far deeper truths than this. These are universal truths that are repeated in the world’s literature, significantly the Bible.
Here’s the beginning of a list:
- Things in this world are usually too complex to reduce to simple categories like good and evil.
- Although it doesn’t make sense, by opening your hands, you can gain so much more.
- Significant transformation occurs through suffering and times of despair, and these can be followed by a profound joy.
What is the mechanism behind this these universal ideas being found in the world’s literature, and Finding Nemo? Some say these are evolved patterns, but I’m living as if the mythic truths in all stories echo the Creator’s one story that culminates with the birth, death and resurrection of Christ.
Either way, I don’t think you can deny that this film is far more than a morality tale about over-protective parenting.