Disability in Animation: Finding Nemo

Series: Disability in Children’s Animation

Spoiler Warnings: Finding Nemo

Trigger Warnings: Memory loss

In 2003, a Disney Pixar came out with a movie called Finding Nemo. It did pretty well, grossing something like 380 million in the US alone, with an estimated budget of 94 million (according to IMDB). It even got a re-release a couple years ago in 3D.

Now, I was 8 years old in 2003, just about the perfect age to enjoy a movie like this. I did not see the movie, however, and in fact wouldn’t see it for just over a decade. But I did hear about it, and by the time I finally watched it a few months ago, it had seeped through my cultural consciousness enough that I had a rough idea of most of the main characters, and even a couple of fun side characters.

Finding Nemo holds a lot of nostalgic value for my friends, and it holds some for me sort of by association, but mostly when I viewed it for the first time I was viewing it as a grown woman would. And I loved it. I also could tell that I would have loved it as a kid, and again, it’s something I would want child-me (or any children I have in the future) to see.

It’s a good, enjoyable movie. It’s funny, the animation is solid, and it has Ellen DeGeneres.

It also has some very good disability representation, and that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

One of the really cool things about this movie is the range of representation, and the amount. It’s not just one disabled character, token or otherwise. In fact, the four characters that I would say have the biggest roles, including the three protagonists, are all in some way disabled.

You can pretty much divide their disabilities up into four different types: physically disabled from birth (Nemo), mentally disabled from (presumably) birth (Dory), physically disabled due to a traumatic event (Gill), and mentally disabled due to a traumatic event (Marlin).

Let’s start with Nemo. After all, he’s the title character.

Nemo: Physically Disabled from Birth



Image Description: Nemo, a young clownfish with one underdeveloped fin.

According to Disney, Nemo is six years old. At the beginning of the movie, he’s headed off to school for the first time. In general, Nemo is a pretty normal kid, despite Marlin’s overprotective parenting. He’s excited for school, he wants to go on adventures, he wants to make friends. From the start, the movie treats his fin like it’s something normal–just a part of what makes him him. It doesn’t treat it like something bad. We see this when he goes to school, and the other kids, once his fin is explained to them, talk about what makes them different–a little octopus who has one tentacle that’s shorter than the others (but you can’t tell when she waves them around), a seahorse who’s allergic to H2O, and a fish who’s  “obnoxious”. Here’s a video of the scene:

As for Marlin, he…sort of agrees with this view–as you see in the above video, he doesn’t make a big deal to the other kids about Nemo’s fin, and he calls it Nemo’s “lucky fin”, which is pretty adorable. He informs the teacher that Nemo gets tired sometimes from swimming, and might need to stop and rest, which is pretty much the right thing to do. That’s not being overprotective, it’s just being responsible and recognizing your limitations–or in this case, the limitations of the child under your care.

At the same time though, it becomes clear that he does think there’s a lot of stuff that Nemo can’t do, and he’s not really letting Nemo figure out for himself what he can and can’t do. Now, that’s not a great attitude, and it’s not necessarily how you should handle a kid’s disability, but it is good that the movie shows it. Because while it may not be the right attitude, it’s a very common one, and the entire rest of the movie is basically spent deconstructing it.

Nemo’s character arc in the movie involves him gaining confidence, and learning that there are a lot of things he can do. They might be harder for him, they might take him longer, but he can do them. And only he will be able to determine what those things are, not his dad.

While captured, Gill has Nemo do things like swim through a filter–it’s rough, and he needs to swim fast, but Gill is confident he can do it. He also has Nemo get himself out of a piece of tube, similar to a piece of coral that he got trapped in at the beginning of the movie. The first time, Marlin pulled Nemo out and began immediately checking him for bruises, bleeding, broken bones, or brain damage (Nemo has none of these, of course. He’s totally fine). Gill, however, refuses to help Nemo out. Nemo asks, because he learned from his experiences with Marlin that he can’t do these things. It’s always been assumed, so now, even with no one telling him, he assumes it too. But Gill makes him get himself out, and lo and behold, Nemo does it. The arc finishes up with Nemo saving a whole bunch of fish, Dory included, from a net (using his brains more than his fin), despite Marlin telling him he can’t. They then reinforce the change in character in the final scene, where we see Nemo going off to school.

All of this is a great message. Telling a kid they can’t do something will get into their head. Some kids will react with “yes, I can, watch”, but others will do the opposite. Either way, the lack of faith gets internalized, and disabled kids (particularly visibly disabled kids) get told what they can’t do a lot.

At the same time, it’s important to know that there are limitations, and that’s okay. The opposite end of the spectrum, the “you can do anything you set your mind to” end, can be just as damaging. I talked about that a little in the My Little Pony post yesterday. Finding Nemo doesn’t really focus much on that end, but I think they did a pretty good job with not pushing it too far, and a lot of the focus is on empowering Nemo to make decisions–which pretty much solves both problems.

Okay, so we’ve got the movie empowering a little kid with a physical disability so that he can figure out for himself what he can do, and live the best and most independent life that he can live. But what about his dad?

Marlin: Mentally Disabled Due to Trauma


If you haven’t seen the movie, the next sentence is a pretty big spoiler.

At the beginning of the movie, Marlin’s wife…


As do all of his eggs except for Nemo.

He does not react well. (Understandably.) He becomes extremely overprotective and terrified of leaving the anemone–he wants Nemo to check outside several times before actually leaving. He’s basically afraid of everything–not so much scared that it will hurt him, but more that it will hurt Nemo. (Once Nemo leaves, he suddenly has a much easier time overcoming his fear, because now the only way to protect Nemo is to go get him back).

He makes significant progress over the course of the movie, although to me he still seems nervous by the end. I guess I can see how you might argue that he’s not disabled, but for my money, he is. What’s going on doesn’t exactly read as PTSD to me, but it’s definitely a long-term trauma response, and it has resulted in agoraphobia. Whatever it is, it’s clearly debilitating.

For Marlin, we have a character arc focused on learning to trust, and learning that his actions are caused by fear, and either aren’t justified or aren’t practical (more the second one–being afraid of the ocean seems totally justified to me). It’s not that he won’t ever face danger again, it’s that danger is a part of everyday life. He can’t hide from it.

Marlin’s story resonated pretty well for me as someone who suffers from a sometimes debilitating trauma response. Part of my trauma response was a phobia of doctors and hospitals. Understandable, given my past experiences, but not a good thing for someone with as many medical issues as me. The first step of my treatment was to learn coping mechanisms, similar to the ones for my general anxiety. The second step was to try to show my brain that it had made an unhelpful association. It associated doctors with bad. Enough doctors visits that didn’t end in bad, and I could change that.

(Because it’s been an argument going around lately, let me take this opportunity to point out: this does NOT mean you should trigger people. In fact it’s pretty much the opposite. Seriously, guys.)

What happens to Marlin is…not exactly that. His experiences with the open ocean are really stressful. But they do all turn out okay, and personally I think that, given the medium, it’s close enough.

The trust thing is also pretty big. When you’re forced to rely on yourself, it gets harder to trust other people. This is a Bad Thing. If you are disabled (or even if you’re not) you really, really need a support network.

I really only know of one way to learn to trust people, and that’s to just do it. It takes time to get to that point, and that person can earn your trust first, but eventually you have to take the leap and just trust. In Marlin’s case this is a literal leap (or fall, actually) when he lets go of what he’s holding on to and falls into a whale’s mouth with Dory. This scene is not subtle. Like, he-accidentally-calls-Dory-Nemo not-subtle.

But it’s a good scene, and it gets the point across.

By the end of the movie, Marlin’s made a lot of progress. He might still be kind of nervous, but he’s able to let Nemo out of his sight, and he’s even able to crack a joke while out of the anemone (so clearly, it’s not stressing him out as much). Obviously, in real life, progress like that would probably take a lot longer. There’d be a lot of setbacks. It would be difficult and take a long time and it would suck. But as representations go, I think this one is solid.

Dory: Mentally Disabled from Birth


Dory has short-term memory loss. She’s also played by Ellen DeGeneres, which is largely irrelevant to what I have to say, but is awesome. Ellen gives a wonderful performance that really sells the character, and keeps her more entertaining than annoying. (At least in my opinion.)

Now, I say Dory is mentally disabled from birth. In fact, I don’t think it ever says that. Her disability has clearly affected her for a long time, and it’s apparently genetic. It’s not clear when exactly it started, because, well, she can’t remember.

There are a few things I really like about Dory. For one, even though her short-term memory loss is a tragic and painful thing, Dory is a very happy person. She’s optimistic and brave. This may be partly because she can’t remember a lot of the scary things she sees, but it’s certainly not because she can’t remember that she forgets things. And it’s definitely not because she lacks intelligence. Dory can read, and possibly speak whale, it’s not clear. There are two really great things here: being disabled doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t be happy (we’re not talking about mood disorders here, and even those often don’t mean you’re never happy, and certainly don’t mean you shouldn’t be), and being mentally disabled doesn’t mean you’re unintelligent. (Neither does being silly when you’re a girl. Dory’s actually pretty great as female characters go, too.)

Dory has arguably less of a character arc than Marlin or Nemo. If anything, it’s more that her character is being revealed to us than that it’s changing. However, there is one very important piece of progress that she makes.

She remembers something.

Specifically, she remembers the address Nemo was taken to, making her vital to the plot. (She’s also the one that read the address in the first place.)

In large part, this is because of Marlin. She even says as much when he gives up on finding Nemo and leaves Dory behind. She begs him not to go, because he feels like home, and she feels like she can remember. It’s a really wonderful scene, and it made me cry.

But here’s the really cool thing.

She doesn’t forget the address as soon as he leaves. She forgets while she’s asking him not to leave.

There are so many movies that “fix” mental illness with love. That’s not what’s happening here. For one thing, Dory still has her memory problems–it’s just this one thing that she can remember, and that’s more than ever before. For another, what they’re showing here? It’s actually a real thing.

Remember what I said before about support systems?

They’re really, really important. Marlin and Dory become each other’s support system. They care about each other. Dory feels like she’s “home”. That means that she’s feeling less stressed. And in general, the lower your stress level, the better your symptoms.

When she’s begging Marlin not to leave, she’s really, really stressed. So she forgets. And I mean really forgets. When Nemo finds her a little while later, she doesn’t know where she is or what she’s doing. She has a vague sense that she’s looking for someone, but doesn’t know who. Nemo’s name doesn’t ring any bells. She knows she misses someone, but she doesn’t know it’s Marlin.

The memories get triggered a little later, however, while she’s helping Nemo look for his dad. (Dory is seriously the sweetest person ever. She goes out of her way to help both Nemo and Marlin, despite them being complete strangers). I have honestly no idea how realistic that is, but it’s a really cool moment and a happy ending, so in this case I have to say I don’t really care. Even if it’s not realistic, there’s a limit to the tragedy you can or should put in a kid’s movie. And this one already killed Nemo’s mom and all his siblings, so it’s pretty much hit that limit. (Also, disabled characters with a happy ending? More please!)

At the very end of the movie, we see that Dory has developed a much bigger support network. She’s friends with some sharks, who help her out by making sure she gets home safe, and she’s evidently living near Nemo and Marlin.

Gill: Physically Disabled Due to Trauma



Gill’s part in the movie is smaller than the others I’ve talked about, but I wanted to include him for a couple of reasons. First, to give a good idea of the variety in disability representation in this movie. Second, while his role is smaller, it’s still a leadership role. While he isn’t a protagonist, he does get to be a hero.

Gill is one of the fish that Nemo meets in the tank. Like Nemo, he is from the ocean, and he wants to get back. In a previous escape attempt, he shredded one of his fins. He also bears a number of scars on his side from the same incident.

There’s actually a fair amount of character development in Gill’s story. We see him go from risking Nemo’s life to escape, to risking his own life to get Nemo out. His main role, however, is as a role model for Nemo. He’s the one who teaches Nemo that he can do things, who believes in Nemo. At first, he seems really harsh, refusing to help Nemo out of the tube he gets stuck in. It becomes apparent, however, that what he’s trying to do is teach Nemo that he can do it himself.

Harsh, but an important lesson for Nemo to learn.

And Gill cares about Nemo learning that lesson, because it was one he had to learn.

Gill’s personality is very different from Dory’s, Marlin’s, and Nemo’s, and that’s good. Disabled people are not all the same. We all have different personalities and different bodies. We also all have different responses to trauma. There are many different disabilities, and many different causes of disability. This movie does a great job of showing that. Seriously, how many movies have you seen with four major disabled characters, three of whom are protagonists? (And none of the protagonists are abled).

In a weird way, Gill is kind of a lesson in why movies like Finding Nemo are important. Nemo needs a role model who is like him, one who can understand what he’s going through. Kids, disabled or not, need to see people like them in media. People who can be role models, and who can represent the specific issues they have, tell their stories, and show them that they can be heroes too.

all pictures from Pixar wiki.


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