The DONALD Rankings Top 20: #19 Finding Nemo

The DONALD Rankings are scores for Disney animated films that combine personal opinion with a pseudo-scientific veneer of hard data. For a full introduction to the DONALD system, please go here. Contribute your scores in the comments!

Welcome back the top twenty of the Deep Forest Outpost DONALD Rankings. Today we continue our countdown with the Pixar gem Finding Nemo.

"Have you ever thought about the fact that we swim around in our own poop all the time?"
“Have you ever thought about the fact that we swim around in our own poop all the time?”

When Finding Nemo hit the theaters in 2003, Pixar was still an independent studio distributing under the Walt Disney Studios banner. Their films were also a high point in the flagging animation division at Disney*. Both groups threatened to walk away ahead of their merger in 2006, citing massive executive egos and demands for more money and power as the reasons for the divide (more or less).

[*Disney’s animated releases during the Pixar distribution deal included Dinosaur, Treasure Planet, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Probably unnecessary spoiler alert here, but none of those films will be included in the DONALD Top 20.]

Pixar knocked another one out of the ballpark with Finding Nemo, which sparkles with amazing animation, great characters, and a clever story. Their streak of success put Disney in an untenable position. The Mouse House eventually caved, put John Lasseter and Ed Catmull in charge of all animation, and kicked off the next/current renaissance of Disney films.

DONALD Score Sheet: Finding Nemo (2003)

1. Story: 8
Finding Nemo scores high on the funny/heartwarming/meaningful power trio that is a hallmark of both Disney and Pixar animated films. Although there are no real plot swerves, the story provides some unexpected moments and good tension. The ending is enjoyable if predictable, and lessons are learned and applied with no need for further questions or follow-up. Speaking of questions, what are we to make of Marlin and Dory’s relationship? Are they living together? Are they a couple? Are labels just a societal construct designed to oppress people? Can’t we have an ocean where fish are allowed to be, without all this need to put names on things?

2. Music: 7
Finding Nemo was the first Pixar movie not to be scored by Randy Newman. Instead, and perhaps feeling a touch uncertain about their decision to stray, the producers hired Thomas Newman, Randy’s cousin*. No matter the reason, it was a good decision; Finding Nemo is one of the best scores in any Pixar film. There are no showstopping songs in the classic Disney musical tradition, but the score is resonant and fluid to my tin ear.

[*Here’s a hot tip for someone looking to break into the movie scoring game: change your name to Newman. Thomas and Randy are prominent members of the Newman family composing dynasty that spans three generations, over 1,100 films, and countless (because I didn’t count them) awards.]

3. Animation Quality: 10
The highest of high points for Finding Nemo is the extraordinary animation. Although Pixar films are always advancing in technology, the design and execution of Finding Nemo make it their best animation in a film to date. I have heard several times that the original animation was so realistic that the director decided to dial it down, although that sounds apocryphal to me.

"Today's lesson is about coral bleaching due to increasingly acidic ocean water, kids!"
“Today’s lesson is about catastrophic coral bleaching due to increasingly acidic ocean water, kids!”

4. Memorable Protagonist: 7
I don’t really like Marlin, but the viewer is not supposed to like him in first impressions. He certainly grows as a character, but is harsh and condescending through much of the movie; until it’s time to learn his lesson at the end. Ultimately, Marlin does fine as a protagonist and is memorable enough, but not one of the all-time greats.

Of course, it didn't help that Marlin was constantly surrounded by idiots.
Of course, it didn’t help that Marlin was constantly surrounded by idiots.

5. Memorable Antagonist(s): 6
Finding Nemo could rate a low score here, because in place of an antagonist, the fish face a series of escalating challenges. Even the “villains” like Phillip Sherman and Darla are not bad: they would treat Nemo differently if they knew he could talk, and had a dad, and cute fish friends whose peer pressure led him to getting caught. However, the opposing elements are also sharply written and help drive the film.

Little known detail: Darla is actually the granddaughter of "Jaws" from the James Bond film Live and Let Die.
Little known detail: Darla is actually the granddaughter of Jaws from the James Bond films “Live and Let Die” and “Moonraker.”

6. Script: 6
Overall, the dialogue is pretty pedestrian. There are clever phrases, solid jokes, and powerhouse lines in Finding Nemo, but they rate par for the course. Much of the conflict is handled in blocks of dialogue with no character subtext whatsoever — which is also par for the course, come to think of it.

7. Supporting Characters: 9
Pixar’s most consistent strength through its first dozen films or so was the supporting characters. Dory is the star of the film, and her popularity helped spawn the 2016 sequel, Finding Dory. Other characters like Crush, Gil, Nigel, and Bruce are much more fun than either Marlin or Nemo.

I like to imagine that all sharks are friendly blokes who just want to make friends. That's how I lost my leg.
I like to imagine that all sharks are friendly blokes who just want to make friends. That’s how I lost my leg.

8. Timelessness: 8
As the best selling DVD of all time, Finding Nemo seems like it won’t be fading anytime soon. It is represented well in the parks, with attractions in multiple locations, parades, and shows. But, the characters are also impossible to translate into costumed figures, which puts this score on wobbly ground.

Just pretend the completely obvious actors aren't there and it's just like watching the movie.
Pretend the completely obvious actors aren’t there and it’s just like watching the movie. Image by Disney.

9. Voice Acting: 8
It’s crazy to realize Albert Brooks and Willem Dafoe both play fish in the same animated movie, but that is the pizzazz Pixar brings to the negotiating table. Ellen DeGeneres had a great career before she was Dory, but being the most memorable character in, again, the best selling DVD of all time certainly didn’t hurt.

10. Charm/Intangibles: 7
All things considered, I am lukewarm on Finding Nemo. It scores well because it is an emotionally resonant story with stunning animation, but I don’t enjoy it quite as much as other Pixar films of the era.

DONALD Score: 76*

[*Holds the tiebreaker over #20 Cars by virtue of a higher Story score.]

2 thoughts on “The DONALD Rankings Top 20: #19 Finding Nemo

  1. Jake

    I think it might be glossing over a lot of information to say that Disney caved to Pixar’s demands eventually. It was more like Pixar refused to negotiate a deal with Michael Eisner, and waited until his removal before they came to a deal with the mouse.

    1. Probably so — there was so much going on around Disney’s acquisition of Pixar that it could fill a whole fleet of books. I still maintain that Pixar had the leverage, though, as they were essentially carrying Disney’s animation division at the time. Steve Jobs walked away from the negotiating table, Disney created Circle 7 Animation, and they had a big, playground-style stare down; Disney blinked first.

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