Tag Archives: finding nemo

Anonymous on Pixar – Part the Second (On Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo)

Part two in my current series of essays – not written by myself, but instead presented initially by the clever Anon from 4chan’s /tv/. Intriguing – now, we’re moving on to Monster’s Inc and Finding Nemo, while A Bug’s Life is strangely absent. Oh, well.

MONSTERS,  INC. (2001)

Monsters, Inc. came at an exciting time in the world  of animation. In addition to Pixar making a play for alpha dog,  Disney’s post-Katzenberg event flicks continued to do respectable  business. DreamWorks was getting traction with critical successes like  Chicken Run (if you have the stomach for cognitive dissonance, check out  the Rotten Tomatoes page for Antz). Other studios were gearing up for  the CGI scene. Animated features were conquering territory so fast that  the 2001 Oscars added the Best Animated Feature category to keep them in  their ghetto.

That was also the year of the first heavyweight  Disney/DreamWorks throwdown, Monsters, Inc. versus Shrek. Everyone  remembers Shrek as the clear winner, but was it? DreamWorks got the  Oscar because Hollywood loves its own reflection, but Pixar grossed $50  million more and scored higher at RT. Perceptions are skewed by the  subsequent Shrek franchise juggernaut, which exists partly because Mike  Myers has a knack for persuading people he’s better than they know he  is. (Seriously, nobody paid to see the first Austin Powers movie, but  somehow he convinced the world they adored it and should flock to The  Spy Who Shagged Me. He did the same with Shrek. The original was a big  hit, sure, but a billion-dollar sequel? Shrek 2 was okay but come on. I  smell sulfur and a signature in blood.)
With  Monsters, Inc. Pixar played their own hot-celebrity card by hiring  Billy Crystal as a sentient testicle. Crystal’s film career was in a  mini-resurgence and he was a smash hosting the Oscar ceremonies  throughout the 90’s, so his name definitely kicked up box office dust.  Pixar’s mantra is to eschew celebrities and find the right person for a  role, but they skated close to the line back then. When they cast Tom  Hanks as Woody, he hadn’t yet gone nuclear with Forrest Gump but he was  riding a string of big hits and some Best Actor hardware. Tim Allen had  the #1 show on television. Of course Pixar famously offered Buzz  Lightyear to Crystal first – apparently “the right person for the role”  was a Jewish comedian from New York with a delivery somewhere between  vaudeville and Woody Allen. (Imagine Buzz’s lines in Mike Wazowski’s  voice. I prefer the cokehead from the Midwest, but the mind boggles at  the possibility.)

I expect they would have hired somebody more  popular for the role of Sully, but I’m pretty sure John Goodman had  compromising photos of Michael Eisner at the time. So that was  the Hollywood environment in which Pixar launched its counterattack  against the DreamWorks ogre. What did they use for ammunition?
The  premise for Monsters, Inc. is ridiculous. Let’s get that out of the way  up front. Not so much the idea of a monster power plant that harvests  children’s screams for fuel via transdimensional closet doors – that’s  entirely deranged, for sure, but it’s a cartoon world. You allow a few  insane precepts. However when the company can’t generate enough power to  meet demand, we’re expected to believe the evil CEO responds by funding  research on more efficient fuel collection? Don’t insult my  intelligence. Low supply means higher prices. This was 2001, the era of  Enron. It’s way more monstrous if Mr. Waternoose manipulates door  selections to retard scream production, then enjoys a vigorous spree of  price gouging, buys company stock with employee retirement funds and  uses the profits to build a new ski lodge in Aspen.

Or should I  say “Asp-en.” Like the snake, see? Because it’s scary? Okay, it’s a  flimsy pun. Now tell me it wouldn’t be right at home in Monsters, Inc.  The movie’s swimming in that kind of weak sauce. CGI flicks have always  been terrible about that (DreamWorks even more than Pixar) because they  write scripts around settings rather than characters or themes. There’s  nowhere to hang a joke except some vaguely-defined backdrop. I  call it okay-go humor. Imagine the writers gather in a conference room.  Andrew Stanton turns to the others and says, “Brainstorm. A city  populated by monsters. OKAY, GO!”

“Godzilla only has to take five  steps to get to work!”

“Good! I’ll write that on the white  board.” *squeakle squeakle squeakle*

“The Blob is there but he  falls down a sidewalk grate!”

“Awesome!” *squeakle squeakle*

“And  then he says ‘Oh, great!'”

*squeakle squeakle*

“The  crossing sign says ‘Stalk/Don’t Stalk’!”

*squeakle squeakle  squeakle*

Please God, strike me dead from flesh-eating  nether-crabs if I have to endure any more of this. I don’t know what’s  worse, the idea that they used every last stupid gag from their  meetings, or that they actually threw out the dumbest ones. CGI movies  are finally weaning themselves off this pap… just in time for the  imaginatively-named Monsters, Inc. 2 next year. I wonder if it’ll  be less homophobic than the original?
Come  on, you had to know this was coming. The symbolism is so obvious,  there’s no way it isn’t deliberate. Mike Wazowski could see it wearing  an eyepatch and high-waisted pants.

Yes, my friends, let me  tell you about the unnatural world of homo-sexuals. You can’t always  recognize them around you, but there’s a place, oh yes, there’s a place  where homo-sexuals run rampant just like they’re normal people. You’ll  never see it if you’re lucky, and moral, and vigilant, but it’s there  all the same. It’s the perverted world in the closet. All closets  lead to this world. They’ve built an enormous closet door network, you  see, because they’re frighteningly organized. Now don’t be fooled by  their smarts. They’re cunning and insidious. In the closet world,  though, it’s clear as day that they’re nothing but a horrible hidden  city of grotesque monsters.

Of course they’re homo-sexuals, so  it’s not a dark, bloody, scary world. This monster world is full of teal  and lavender and fuschia and lime green. It’s all soft edges and warm  light and colorful midcentury graphics. Even the monsters aren’t very  scary, just freakish and generally disgusting. But that’s okay,  homo-sexuals “love” all kinds. If you like “bears,” why, here comes  James P. Sullivan, the biggest, cuddliest, belly-est furball you could  want! Look, he’s walking with Mike, his one-eyed love goblin, out in  plain sight for all the see. But’s that’s normal here. Everybody likes  Mike.

Where’s Sully going? To work at the biggest facility in  town! This is the industry that fuels everything here, the backbone of  the closet world. And Sully is the most productive employee of them all.  What does he do? Oh, he has a very important job for a monster. He  spends his days preying on our unsuspecting children
But  even Sully doesn’t know what the boss of the facility is planning. It’s  the next step in the homo-sexual monster agenda, the one that will make  all their dreams come true. They’re going to kidnap our children into  the closet world. Yes, my friends, you must believe me. If nothing is  done, this will happen! Let’s hope Sully realizes the error of  his lifestyle! If we all pray real hard, maybe he’ll figure out that  there’s only one thing he should do outside the closet world. One thing  that any homo-sexual should do. Maybe he’ll get rid of his evil boss and  make every employee in the facility join in! Then everyone in the  monster world will understand that if a homo-sexual is out of the  closet, all he’s good for is making people laugh. Homo-sexuals can be  very funny. You have to admit that! I’ve seen them in several movies and  television programs, like that one old boy on that game show. I’m sure  you know who I mean.

Hey, there’s one now, performing a comedy  routine. What’s he doing? Swallowing that phallic microphone?! Well  heck, I suppose that is kind of funny, in a way! As long as he doesn’t  do that in front of the children. He wouldn’t do that, now would he? But  nahh, you’re right, that was a cheap shot. An easy gag. I don’t  actually believe Pixar made a cartoonishly homophobic movie. Leave the  Tinkertoy symbolism to DreamWorks. As we’ve seen, Lasseter’s boys are  far more subtle and their misanthropy is infinitely more sophisticated. For  Monsters, Inc. it all started with casting. We’ve already discussed  Billy Crystal, but the telling roles are Sully and Randall. Quick, what  other movie features both John Goodman and Steve Buscemi? Sure, you know  this one: The Big Lebowski. Also Barton Fink, both Coen Brothers  flicks. The Coens were hot snot in 1998, when Monsters, Inc. was getting  off the ground. Fargo had collected a Hefty bag full of trophies and  they followed up with their popular stoner-noir. Goodman and Buscemi  shot five Coen movies apiece, and it was no accident that Pete Docter,  the writer & director of MI, hired from their stable of regular  actors. For his first movie, Docter plainly took his cues from the  brothers. (Heck, he hails from Minnesota, which is just North Dakota  with pro sports. Fargo definitely spoke his language.)

How did  that influence Monsters, Inc.? You have no idea. The Coens are famous  for their dark symbolism and penchant for Hitchcock/noirish motifs.  Docter’s inspiration was to translate these ideas into the  pastel-colored playground of a Disney family feature. He succeeded so  well that audiences never realized they were watching the bleak downward  spiral of a weak-willed man. His obfuscation put the Coens to shame,  and that’s saying something. Even  at the time, people often forgot how difficult it was to do “shaggy”  with computer graphics. Pixar had top-of-the-line server farms, but they  were still year 2000 machines. The other little effects shop George  Lucas started, ILM, had patented a beautiful technique used in 1998’s  Mighty Joe Young remake, but it was proprietary and Pixar had its own  dungeon of programmers they could abuse to get the same result.  Naturally they conquered the world.

The next time you watch  Monsters, Inc. and marvel at scope of the climactic chase scene through  the door warehouse, recall that you’re looking at thousands of rigid  rectangular objects moving around common axes. That’s candy-corn kid  stuff. Throughout the rest of the film, you’ve been watching Sully’s 2.3  million hairs flop around each other like well-ordered Silly String.  The servers took 17 hours to render a single frame with Sully in it. Why  go through so much trouble? Docter knew he had to sell you this  character, and he threw as much computing power as he could at the task.  It’s not happenstance that Sully is the only character in the whole  movie you’d want to snuggle. You totally fell for it, too. (You can make  arguments to include the disgraced Abominable Snowman in the snuggly  category, as well as George Sanderson, the furry orange monster who not  coincidentally is the only other scarer to instigate a “2319.” The  purpose for these exceptions will become clear as we go.) The  reason Sully is appealing is because the movie occurs in his POV. The  entire setting and story are designed to characterize him via his naive,  childlike worldview. So who is James P. Sullivan?

Sully  is a company man. He’s the top performer in his entire office, about to  break the all-time record even in a downturn. He lives in a colorful  cityscape of warm weather and friendly neighbors and copious accolades  at his job. The outrageous setting is the mental landscape, the “life of  the mind,” of the real-world person he represents. But something’s  wrong. To understand a character’s self-image, it’s revealing to  examine what he considers to be alien. What constitutes “the other.”  Sully lives in a city entirely populated by bizarre monsters of endless  grotesque shapes and sizes. He’s the closest thing to a human being and  the only one who’s soft instead of scaly or slimy or serpentine. Good  grief, for Sully the entire world is “the other.” Our fuzzy protagonist  is highly maladjusted. He’s alone in his mind.

So what about  fast-talking Mike Wazowski, his roommate, coworker, sidekick and best  pal? They’re joined at the hip because metaphorically, they’re two sides  of the same character. Mike is Sully’s interface to the world. He’s the  part that wants to be normal, to drive a car and have a girlfriend and  live a real life. He’s Sully’s conscience – revealed in the very first  shot of the characters – waking him up on time, making sure he’s in game  shape. That’s why Docter made him a walking eyeball; he’s literally  keeping an eye on Sully. Mike is Sully’s humanity. He’s a little green  Jiminy Cricket. But  he’s a Jiminy Cricket who actually succeeds in protecting Sully from  the world. He’s Sully’s defense mechanism. Mike answers the phone after  the TV commercial airs, keeps the janitors at bay when they praise him,  romances Celia with cornball efficiency. But Mike’s as physically  grotesque as the rest of the world, because Sully doesn’t understand  social contact. Sully is detached, numb to actual human interaction.  Witness his bored disregard of Celia. Assuming this romance represents  an actual relationship in the real world, he’s clearly just going  through the motions. Sully is an empty excuse for a man. Well, of  course he is. He knows it. He’s a monster too. They didn’t name the  character “Sully” to be cute.

There’s just one thing in the world  that actually matters to Sully: his job. It’s all he really does. Mike  chastises him for that. Mike’s well-adjusted enough to understand that  the cute receptionist is important and the crap paperwork isn’t. Sully  meanwhile just keeps working, without a thought or care. Practically the  only other person he talks to is his boss, during which he’s revealed  as a shameless suck-up. Man, no wonder Pete Docter had to make him fuzzy  and huggable. The rest of him is just sad. In  return the company itself, the titular Monsters Inc., takes great  interest in Sully. But in what way? Do they appreciate the whole  package? Let’s see, during the TV commercial they feature Sully twice,  but when Mike appears they quickly blot him out. On the Employee of the  Month wall, Mike is cropped out of every picture. Hell no, Monsters Inc.  doesn’t want a Sully with a conscience and a life. They want a mindless  performer, a number-producing robot.

So tell me, who is Sully  without his Jiminy Cricket? He ain’t no real boy, that’s for sure. The  Oscar-winning theme song spells it out as clear as you could ask: “I  wouldn’t have nothin’ if I didn’t have you.” Sully is ultimately hollow  without his little green mask. He’s a nonentity. A cog. Which  begs the question, a cog in what? What exactly does Monsters Inc. do? I  almost don’t want to say. You can bail now, if you want to preserve some  remaining scrap of innocence. Unlike  previous movies, I’m not going to spend much time on worldbuilding  logic. Monsters, Inc. is so absurd that it’s basically logic-proof.  Where the closet doors come from, how they sync up with their  counterparts, how the monsters know about the children in their files,  none of it was meant to hold up to scrutiny and it’s pointless to  pretend otherwise. The “scaring children for fuel” gag is just a hook.  The monster world is 100% allegorical. The important question is what it  represents.

So what does the company Monsters Inc. represent?  Let’s break down how it operates for Sully. His workplace is a huge,  bustling facility that’s vitally important to the functioning of the  city. No surprise there, he’s justifying his life of drudgery. Safe to  say it’s not as glamorous in the real world. At the office, he and his  fellow “scarers” are like star athletes. They get a slow-motion entrance  and everyone ooo’s and ahh’s about how awesome they are. Again it’s  justification, not to mention masturbatory. This guy’s got a major  inferiority complex. What’s a scarer’s job? He receives a file  about some unsuspecting person, goes in, frightens the piss out of them,  collects the screams and starts over with the next file. The company  matches him with the best victims. He may revisit someone he’s already  scared, looking to spook more out of them. Sully in particular is an  expert at squeezing out more screams than his coworkers. He tops the  leaderboard. He is hot shit.

Wait,  but what’s he really doing? What does “scaring” represent? Hmmm,  screams are a pretty obvious analogue for money. He’s scaring money out  of people. Is he an extortionist? No, holy crap, it’s worse – Sully is a  freaking salesman. Probably hawking insurance supplements or fake  security systems or something that requires scary stories about  criminals or catastrophic health problems. Well, hell. Sully just got  twice as pathetic as before, and that’s saying something. How  about the closet doors, what are they? Instant connection to anywhere in  the world, in and out quickly, making sale after sale after sale from  one office. Jesus God, that sounds like a telephone. Yeah, it’s dawning  on you now, isn’t it?

James P. Sullivan is a goddamn  telemarketer.

The  “scare floor” is a bloody call center. Sully is top dog in a crowded,  dimly-lit boiler room, preying on weak, innocent victims rendered as  children but more likely to be senior citizens. Think of that the next  time you watch all those cannisters filling up. Blllllloop! Another old  grandmother robbed of her retirement. Blllllloop! And another one.  Bllloop bllloop bllloop bllloop! Slumber party! I suppose it’s no wonder Sully thrives here. He’s  disconnected from society. When he goes in for a sale, he doesn’t even  bring his conscience. Nor has he any chance of developing something like  a real human identity; the horror of being a predatory monster will  push any spark of humanity to a safe distance. Meanwhile Mike, in his  role as defense mechanism, keeps the world at bay, happily calls this  life “success” and dreams of his car and his date with Celia.

Pete  Docter, you magnificent asshole, you used millions of dollars of  technology to make us root for this despicable son of a bitch. And  that’s just the movie’s setup. Which  brings us to the actual plot of the film, wherein a monster falls in  love with a human little girl. Does the real-world bully – I mean  “Sully” – encounter a victim of his telephone terrorism? Does the  monster meet his match? Come on, this isn’t Beauty and the Beast or its  rote inversion, Shrek. Docter is no Katzenberg. As you can imagine from  the setup, he’s after something much more twisted and dark.

“Nothing  is more toxic than a human child.” Hasn’t that always seemed like an  odd claim? Monster society keeps a whole branch of agents on standby to  handle the danger of toxic children, yet children aren’t toxic,  something Waternoose, Randall and even Roz already know. The cartoony  setting of Monsters, Inc. isn’t supposed to make sense, but this was  always a weirdly obvious stumble given its major role in the motivation  of pretty much every character. I don’t know if Docter and his team  didn’t sufficiently spackle the plot hole, but its presence is  revealing. The only conclusion is that “children are toxic” is a myth  designed to warn monsters away from interacting with kids. Fill in your  own perverse theory about why; it doesn’t matter. We’ve already  established that children are metaphorical in this movie. Let’s follow  the path that Docter laid out and see what answer it leads to. Sully  works the phones in a sleazy boiler room. He’s the biggest producer,  but he has a sneaky, belligerent coworker named Randall who does  everything he can to take the top spot. One day Sully – conspicuously  without his Jiminy Cricket – finds Randall working after hours on some  secret scheme, some edge to get ahead. Naively, he pokes his nose where  it wasn’t invited.

Then something happens. In  the movie it’s the arrival of Boo, a two-year-old Asian-American girl  (presumably she’s American, though the time zone board had stopped over  central Asia). Sully’s horrified! He runs around like a madman but  there’s no escape, so he takes her home. The authorities are on alert!  This could wreck his job! Mike’s more worried she could kill them. They  need to get rid of her immediately. Then Sully finds a quiet moment and  starts to think hey, you know, Boo’s not really so bad. Maybe they can  take her to work tomorrow and fix it there. Mike protests, but Mike’s  not in charge. The office is swarming with agents, but they  can’t turn back now. Mike is determined to send Boo packing. First he  summons a random door, but Sully balks. He’s starting to like Boo and  won’t get rid of her that way. Then Boo vanishes and Sully is utterly  panicked until he finds her again. Mike finally gets the correct door  from Randall, and Sully balks again. You can’t trust Randall! Holy  cow, Sully always has an excuse not to let Boo go, doesn’t he? It’s  like the more he’s with her, the more he wants to stay with her. Even at  the risk of ruining his career, or possibly his life. Everyone else  sees Boo as dangerous, but to Sully she’s a sweet, innocent, mischievous  little secret that comforts him like nothing else can. For the first  time in his empty life, he can feel something.

So what does Boo  represent? Have you pieced it together yet? For the answer, I refer you  to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth  Edition. The  DSM-IV gives seven criteria to diagnose substance dependence:  “unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control substance use”, “important  social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or  reduced” and so on. The next time you watch Monsters, Inc., see if you  can check each one off the list. After the end of the first act, when  Boo appears, they fall like British Petroleum stock. The evidence  is all there in soothing pastels. Sully, the near-sociopathic  phone-shark, stumbles across something that suddenly makes him feel  emotion. Something that seems human in his world of monsters. Something  that society warns you is poisonous and enforcement agents are always  chasing. Seriously, the question isn’t whether Boo represents an illicit  drug, but which one? Pete Docter named her after an old term for pot,  but that doesn’t map. (Hey, Dory’s not a dory and Marlin’s not a  marlin.) The whole thing started with Randall looking for an extra edge  in the boiler room, so most likely we’re talking about some species of  amphetamine. Regardless, Sully stuck his hand in the cookie jar and got  the cutest little monkey on his back. (That shot always gets a hearty  laugh, doesn’t it?)

With that piece on the table, it’s easy to  fit the whole puzzle together. While you read this, think as Pete Docter  did when he wrote it: this is a Coen Brothers movie starring a  bewildered John Goodman and a scummy Steve Buscemi. Everyone’s in over  their head and the only good guy is the creepy lady cop working  undercover as the bookkeeper. Business  is down, so call center kingpin Mr. Waternoose has started dealing on  the side, using Randall’s aid and connections. Sully bumbles into the  plot and, out of his mind on the product, nearly hands the whole thing  over to the feds. Waternoose fires him, leaving him out in the cold, but  didn’t count on Sully’s newfound meaning in life. Sully returns, steals  a fix from Randall and trips like hell while fighting off the scumbag.  After a chase sequence, Randall falls into the hands of one of their  telephone victims, who beats him to death with a shovel. Meanwhile  Waternoose is trying to hand Sully to the feds as a fall guy. How does  Sully win? He tricks the old man with a magic closet door – which is to  say, a telephone. He gets Waternoose to confess and records it for the  cops. Sully is, after all, the top phone-shark in the company.

That’s  the superficial plot, but the real story is in Sully’s head, where the  truly twisted stuff happens. That’s what Docter put on the screen and  called a family movie. Let’s have a look at the black heart of Monsters,  Inc., then wrap it up and move on. I’m starting to get depressed just  reviewing it. To  track Sully’s heartwarming downward spiral, we only have to observe his  relationship with Mike, his conscience and connection to society. When  Sully grows fond of Boo, Mike screams at him to come to his senses.  Sully knows he’s doing something wrong. Then they get tossed out in the  cold and Mike’s had it. He draws the line. But it’s too late – Sully’s  cut off from his Boo and she’s important enough to sacrifice everything,  even the career that once gave him purpose. Nothing else matters. So he  turns his back on his conscience. Fuck reality. You’d think this  is the low point for Sully, but you’d be wrong. Because this is where  his abused conscience start to crumble. Mike chases after him and starts  making excuses about how he was confused and needed time to think. The  last vestige of Sully’s willpower is failing. His only link to reality  is corrupted. From here on, Mike literally humors Boo. (Nice touch,  Docter.) He’s even misty-eyed after Waternoose is arrested and the  authorities force Sully to give her up.

The end is the darkest  scene of all. Robbed of his newfound emotional awakening, Sully has  returned to what he knows – his work. He’s taken over running the boiler  room. Of course under his watch everything’s happy clowns and juggling  balls. His low self-esteem has re-emerged, so he fantasizes himself a  big shot again. He’s even on the cover of a magazine. (The magazine is  named “Business Shriek!” *squeakle squeakle*) But it’s worse than  before. Now he understands how empty he is. It’s his corrupted  conscience, scarred and bandaged, that finally comes to the rescue: Mike  leads him back to the loving embrace of Boo, the beautiful miracle that  makes him warm and innocent. Every part of him now believes this is  right and good. Sully takes the final step into ruinous addiction at the  sweet little voice that cries “Kitty!”
Brrrr.  You know, when I first saw this movie, I wondered why Waternoose got  arrested for planning to kidnap children. Are the monsters suddenly  sympathetic to their prey? Then I realized they didn’t care about the  kids – they cared that he was endangering the monster world with  hazardous contraband. Pete Docter had totally suckered me with the  adorable Boo and fuzzy ol’ Sully, so much that I lost sight of the  premise. That’s the genius of Monsters, Inc. It’s the story of an  emotionless scumbag whose desire to feel good drags him all the way  down, and he goddamn deserves it. Pixar ran it through their dream  machines and cutting-edge computers and made us feel as euphoric as  Sully when he’s stoned. They’re the masters of euphoria, right? Don’t  they always make us feel warm and innocent?


Yes.  Also, surprise – Finding Nemo.


If Toy  Story launched Pixar and Toy Story 2 boosted them into high orbit,  Finding Nemo kicked them into warp drive straight at the fucking face of  God. The captain of the Starship Hubris was Andrew Stanton. Stanton was  a writer for all the previous movies and lead name on the last three,  but this was his first time in the director’s chair (an Aeron, no  question). Looking at the assignment, I’m pretty sure John Lasseter was  hazing the rookie. The degree of difficulty in this film is  positively unwholesome. To start with, it’s a movie about fish. Think  about that. Any animator can make toys, bugs and monsters dance and  sing. But a fish is just a floating face. It’s as if Lasseter took  Stanton’s characters, yanked off their arms and legs and handed them  back. “Still think you can win an Oscar, Andy?”

On top of that,  most of it takes place in the open ocean. Remember in the previous  films, all those countless clever details and jokes and Easter eggs in  the background? Forget that sissy bar, Poindexter. A good third of this  movie has no background at all. Much of the rest occurs on a dull,  featureless sea floor. Finding Nemo makes Our Town look like freaking  Phantom of the Opera. Plus we shouldn’t have any villains like  before. Villains are a crutch, am I right? And just for fun, let’s kill  four hundred children in the first five minutes. OKAY, GO!

This  movie is an impossible task. This is sixty men guarding Humperdinck’s  gate. This is Han Solo facing three Star Destroyers. It’s like a circus  act that piles on more obstacles, just to be insane. “Ladies and  gentlemen, please direct your attention above the center ring, where  Pixar will now attempt to produce a hit movie… about faces floating in  a void! Not difficult enough, you say? What if they have to do it…  with Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres in the lead roles!” What  sort of arrogant bastards take a kid’s movie and turn it into an epic  ego-gasmic grandstand? They couldn’t have been more ostentatious if  they’d dressed like Evel Knievel and driven a Bugatti on the wing of a  stealth bomber. Finding Nemo made it official: Pixar is the  ‘roid-stuffed bodybuilder in the gym, and you can’t use the freeweights  until he’s through posing in the mirror. Just watch and dream,  flab-butt.

Incidently, I wasn’t serious about Lasseter assigning  Andrew Stanton the movie. Finding Nemo was Stanton’s baby, script to  screen. He got an Oscar nom for the screenplay and rightly so. It’s  crazy dense with craft. The humor is character-driven, with minimal  capitulation to punchlines and broad absurdity and okay-go stuff. Above  all it’s sober and deliberate. No thin spackling here. (Well, maybe one  spot.) So it can’t be an accident that, for a colorful film about  talking fish, there’s an awful lot of death imagery. Not just the  manipulative mass-child-murder opening (“Oh look, they’re dreaming!”) or  the endless parade of deadly threats. I mean random bits, like Gill  living in a skull and the recurring abyss scenes and “Conscience, am I  dead?” This movie has death written all over it. Look close and you’ll  find that it’s intrinsic to the whole structure of the film. I should  probably explain what that means.

You  may or may not know that modern Hollywood movies are all about  structure. And by “structure” I mean “shameless formula.” In 1979 the  screenwriting guru Syd Field turned Aristotle’s three-act format into a  Tinsel Town religion called the Paradigm (yes, capitalized). Here’s the  gist: A movie is divided into four quarters. The first quarter is the  first act, the setup. Near its end commences the first big turning  point, where the story takes off. Usually this occurs fifteen minutes  in. (Go ahead, load up your favorite Hollywood flick. Fast forward to  the fifteen-minute mark. It’s the first turning point, right? Early  Pixar was slavish to this timestamp.) The next two quarters of  the film comprise the second act, what Syd Field labels “Conflict,” in  the middle of which occurs a “point of no return.” The end of act two is  the second major turning point. The last quarter is the climax and  denouement. Roll credits. (If you want to depress yourself, think of any  wide-release movie from the last thirty years. Now watch how it bows to  the formula like a perverse Lovecraftian god.)

Finding Nemo  follows the Paradigm. Divide up the running time and check the  timestamps. It’s pretty spot-on. Stanton obviously kept a firm hand on  the structure of the screenplay. So why does it seem like so much more  happens in Nemo than in other movies? And what does that have to do with  death imagery? The why is structural. Nemo is built like a  cathedral, with stunning art layered atop precise architecture. As for  the what, have you ever seen All That Jazz? The  movie All That Jazz has a recurring motif about the “five stages of  grief” (where “recurring” means “drilled into your head like  trepanation”). The five stages describe emotions felt by someone who is  dying or grieving a loved one. In Finding Nemo, death-obsessed Andrew  Stanton uses them as a second layer of structure. (The primary layer, as  we discussed, is Syd Field’s Paradigm. Despite Pixar’s idyllic  workplace, so famously isolated from Hollywood, the Paradigm lives like a  cockroach among the lunch counters manned by cherub orgies and computer  chairs stuffed with unicorn eyelashes.) As repeated ad infinitum  in All That Jazz, the stages are Anger, Denial, Bargaining, Depression  and Acceptance. Split Nemo into five parts and you’ll find they track  within a minute.

– The first stage, Anger, pivots around Nemo  and Marlin getting angry at each other, triggering the whole adventure.

–  The second stage, Denial, kicks off with the fish-addict sharks. The  theme is right in the dialogue: ” I don’t have a problem.” “Oh, okay.  DENIAL!”

– The Bargaining stage is about Gill’s scheme to escape  the dentist’s aquarium, while Marlin negotiates with Dory and a school  of real asshole performance artists.

– Depression starts with  Nemo and Gill moping over their failure. This is the segment where  Marlin and Dory are stuck inside the whale, Joseph Campbell’s symbol of  the death and recreation of self.

– Acceptance begins when Nemo  gets scooped out of the tank, to be given to Darla. Marlin arrives after  his long journey to find that Nemo is dead. He heads for home while  Nemo literally goes down the drain.

Okay, but what’s the point?  Why did Stanton build his script around grief? Because Finding Nemo  isn’t a movie about a child growing up. It’s about a child never growing  up. Once  again let’s dive into the subtext to see what’s bubbling under the  surface. (No, I have no shame. Why do you ask?)

Finding Nemo  starts with a very different Marlin. He’s noticably cavalier toward the  four hundred eggs he and his mate are about to hatch. “We’ll name this  half Marlin Junior and this half Coral Junior. Okay, we’re done.” He’s  much more interested in flapping Coral’s flippers. He’s also cocky and  confident. When the barracuda attacks, the tiny clownfish charges right  into battle. This little dude has grit. Then Coral and the  embryos are devoured and a single egg remains: Nemo’s. Not much subtext  is hidden here; it’s all on the surface. Our protagonist’s family dies.  The only question mark is the surviving egg. Now we skip ahead to  Nemo’s first day of school. This symbolism is pretty blatant – we’re  dealing with separation anxiety. After the opening tragedy, Marlin is  neurotically skittish. His grit is apparently destroyed. When Mr. Ray  swoops in and takes the boy away, Marlin freaks out, chases them down  and refuses to let Nemo go. This action kicks off the whole adventure.

What  does this sequence represent? It isn’t difficult to work out. Nemo  started production just after The Sixth Sense grabbed 1999 by the short  hairs. Secretly-dead stories were popping up like barnacles on a corpse.  Andrew Stanton wasn’t immune to its gimmicky charms. It’s  a parable within a parable. Look closer: the barracuda scene ends with  Marlin finding a lone, improbable survivor. What’s he feeling at that  moment? His future is destroyed and this little orange egg is the last  scrap for a scrappy fish to hang on to. Remember, Marlin’s a fighter.  He’s not going to let this egg die. We cross-fade into the titles, then  segue without a cut into Nemo as a child. We’ve now passed into the  future that Marlin, in his mind, is protecting. What seems like  cowardice is actually Marlin fighting desperately not to let go of the  last egg. He hasn’t lost his grit at all. He’s redirected it against a  horrible, empty future. Stanton has thrown us a clever, if rather morbid  reversal.

From there the metaphor is clean and clear. Mr. Ray  takes Nemo to the place where Coral and the other eggs became sashimi.  Mr. Ray is the grim reaper, a psychopomp stealing away his son. When  Marlin interferes, Nemo gets whisked off by a godlike diver. Nemo’s now  stranded in a cramped glass limbo, separated from the world of the  living but unable to pass on. Unwilling to accept his son’s death,  Marlin has metaphorically trapped the boy. The movie then  chronicles the steps of his grief until at last, in the dentist’s  office, he sees Nemo floating belly-up and finally accepts the truth.  Nemo, the metaphor for the last egg, is dead. Only after this happens  does Nemo escape limbo, passing through the proverbial tunnel to  oblivion. Dory, the avatar for Marlin’s memory as he tries to forget the  tragedy, allows him one last glimpse of his lost boy. This is when he’s  waking from his metaphorical journey (“Swim down! Swim down!”). As Nemo  lies unmoving on the sea floor, the story flashes back to the present,  where Marlin is holding the last egg. We’ve come full circle. Marlin now  accepts the death of his family and his future. The  movie closes as Marlin’s grit fails and he allows death, as Mr. Ray, to  take Nemo away for good. Somewhere in the present, Marlin drops the  dead little egg and swims away into the night.

The ending always  made me tear up, but I never knew exactly why. The fact is, Stanton has  given us the saddest goddamn movie ever to pretend it’s a lush, colorful  exploration of parental love. You wonder why I show him respect? The  macabre motherfucker earned it. Stanton doesn’t limit his  structure to Dr. Kubler-Ross-with-a-dash, by the way. For the sake of  brevity I won’t go into great detail, but pretentiously enough he also  leans on Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Dante’s Purgatorio is a place  where souls must atone for the Seven Deadly Sins before reaching  Paradise. To demonstrate how Stanton (who is vocally religious, like  most Pixar brass) references this, let’s examine the first Deadly Sin he  tackles: Lust. In Dante’s tale, Purgatory for the lustful is a mountain  ledge with a precipice on one side and a wall of fire on the other.  Sound familiar? In the opening scene of Nemo, Marlin and Coral move into  a stinging anemone – portrayed like a living flame – at the Dropoff.  When they start getting frisky, the barracuda appears. At stake are  hundreds of eggs, the product of their Lust. We know how it works out.

Coincidence?  Sit tight. You know how Nemo’s fish tank is a reflection of his prior  life? Now recall his initiation when he swims up the side of Mount  Wannahockaloogie, which is covered with orange pebbles notably similar  to clownfish eggs. At the top, he must pass like a penitent through the  “Ring of Fire.” (Oh, that’s why they called it fire.) Yeah, there’s no  question this imagery is deliberate. Nemo and the aquarium inmates work  through each Deadly Sin just as Marlin does. I’ll  leave the other sins as a homework exercise. (Gluttony comes next.  Dante had a specific order.) The point here is that Finding Nemo isn’t  just a sad, bittersweet tale of a father letting go of his son. Nemo has  an undercurrent of dark self-righteousness that belies its visual  innocence. For example, why did Coral and the babies deserve to die?  Simple: fornication. You always assumed Coral was Marlin’s wife, but  strangely, words like “wife” or “husband” or “married” never appear in  the film. Do these talking beasts even wed? Or do they just breed, like  Hollywood movie stars? The barracuda is a pretty big tell from Stanton.

How  about the movie’s opinion on addiction? There’s a scene about sharks  who decide to stop eating fish via an AA-style program of steps.  (Allegedly they just eat dolphins.) It’s a gag when two of the three  fail onscreen, but the real offense is that sharks are designed to eat  fish. It’s intrinsic to their nature. These addicts are destined to  fail; moreover they were destined to become addicts from birth. What is  Stanton saying about addiction here? And are sharks racially inclined to  be degenerate? His Christian charity seems to yield to something very  ugly. And the ugliness keeps coming. We’ve talked about Pixar’s  treatment of female characters. This movie is particularly grim. We’ve  got a fornicator, a brain-damaged simpleton, a narcissist schizophrenic,  an idiot pet-killer and a starfish who’s basically the aquarium  secretary. Even the octopus girl poops herself. Meanwhile the dudes are  smart and capable and resourceful. How did we get here, Pixar? You  always say you make the kind of movies you like to watch. Your message  is loud and clear.

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