Tonight, thousands of millennials will be lining up at theaters across the country, in a weekend that could smash box office records. Will they be waiting to see the next $200 million comic book movie, or a raunchy R-rated comedy? No. They’ll be waiting to see a G-rated children’s movie—Finding Dory.
For those of you who weren’t born in the 90s, it’s hard to quantify what Finding Dory’s predecessor, Finding Nemo, meant to our childhood. The only metric available to me are the records that Nemo set. The $867+ million it grossed at worldwide box offices is enough of an indicator, but perhaps its most impressive feat is that Nemo is to this day, the best-selling DVD of all time. It sold over 40 million copies.
I am one of the 40 million. Actually, I’m two of them.
Or I should say, my parents were. After seeing Nemo in theaters, I was as demanding as an eight year-old could possibly be, badgering them to buy the movie on DVD as soon as it was available. My parents split up when I was six, but I still had a copy of Finding Nemo at each house. When my dad bought a new car that amongst its new specs featured a DVD player, you can bet your bottom dollar that Nemo was the first disc that was popped into that bad boy. When I was ten, my dad’s side of the family took a road trip to Yosemite, a seven hour drive from San Diego. We watched Finding Nemo twice on the way up, and twice on the way back down.
We were obsessed.
And for good reason. At its core, Finding Nemo is one of the best-told stories in movie history. Co-writer and director Andrew Stanton noted in his DVD commentary that the inspiration for Finding Nemo came from his own childhood. He recounted going to the dentist just to see the fish tank, and imagining that the fishes wanted to escape back to the ocean. Indeed, the best way to reach children is to be one.
Stanton was captivated by clownfish, the species of main characters Marlin and Nemo, not only because of their name, but because they rarely ever leave their anemone. What a perfect type of fish to send on a journey that goes far, far away from home out into the big, scary ocean. And though Stanton may not have intended it, the ocean came to represent something much bigger than its initial purpose.
Finding Nemo was released on May 30th, 2003. Just two months earlier, the United States and other Coalition countries began their invasion of Iraq, in search of weapons of mass destruction. Less than two years earlier, the terror attacks of 9/11 changed the world forever. For children such as myself who were in elementary school during this era, we were never of age at a time when America and the rest of the Western world wasn’t in an endless fight against terrorism. The world was big, bad, and scary, just like the ocean that separated Marlin and Nemo.
Marlin’s journey to find Nemo followed the traditional beats of the monomyth laid out by Joseph Campbell in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Marlin is called to action, confronted with a series of tests, almost dies in the mouth of a whale, until Dory tells him that, “It’s time to let go!” (seen below) When Marlin does, he’s reborn, shot out the blowhole of the whale, and together, Marlin and Dory go on to be reunited with Nemo. But given the context of the post-9/11 world, Marlin’s relentless search for his son was a comfort to us kids who were encountering this scary ocean of a world. Though we didn’t understand it at the time, Finding Nemo showed us that through the new chaos we were confronted with, it was all going to be okay.
The significance of Finding Nemo brings the context of its successor, Finding Dory, into the limelight. The horrific tragedy in Orlando this past weekend gives new meaning to the film. The continued gun violence that has been present in the formative years of American millennials has reached a critical mass. It’s more of the same terror and mourning that has defined our lives and tempered our collective outlook. But for 103 minutes this weekend, we get to harken back to our childhoods. We get to remember what it felt like to be dazzled by groundbreaking animation, to have our hearts warmed by a touching story, and to have our minds eased by something familiar.
No matter what awards Finding Dory may win, or what box office records it may smash, its greatest achievement will be providing comfort to a generation. And as far as I’m concerned, comfort is something that is always worth finding.