"Fish Are Just Like People, Only Flakier":
Environmental Practice and Theory in Finding Nemo

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2009, Volume 8, Issue 1


Christy Tidwell
University of Texas at Arlington

In an increasingly urban and suburban, as well as digitized and mediated, world, filmic representations of nature are of great importance in revealing the value and wonder of nature to generations who may not (and, in many cases, undoubtedly will not) see and experience this nature personally. Traditional nature films provide one potentially useful way of introducing nature to these generations. However, Jim Nollman writes, in “What’s Wrong with Nature Films?”:

year after year we watch a continuing parade of field biologists pointing and whispering and ultimately promoting the classic scientific schism between observer and observed favored by field biologists. This stereotype also demonstrates why so few films ever get made that depict nature as anything besides a vast wildlife laboratory presided over by stewarding scientists. And an entire generation of people has grown up believing that the fine art of comprehending nature is primarily a matter of astute observation and unwavering objectivity; and (need I say it again) a realm best left to the experts. The stereotype of the nature film is thus revealed as the public media face of the biologist.

Given this, it is of great importance that these representations, these substitutes for the real thing, be analyzed and examined for the lessons they provide. Films such as Finding Nemo (2003) that deal in representations of nature and that reach out to young, impressionable audiences offer opportunities to counter the messages of traditional nature films. Finding Nemo tells the story of a young clownfish, Nemo, captured by a diver, of his father Marlin’s quest to find and rescue him, and of the friends they both make along the way. Instead of the expert expounding upon the habits of the alien animal species, Finding Nemo is a narrative film featuring nature itself, a film in which the characters are animals whose lives are important, who are presented in action, who live wild themselves, outside the “vast wildlife laboratory presided over by stewarding scientists.” Furthermore, and as a result of this approach, Finding Nemo represents an opportunity to teach environmentally friendly attitudes toward nature to the children who make up the film’s primary audience; however, within the positive environmental lessons of the film are planted the seeds of dangerous ideas and practices.

The visual representation of the marine life is one element of the film that promotes environmental consciousness among its viewers. Fish are not generally represented or seen as friendly, sympathetic creatures; they are not cute and cuddly and are infrequently protagonists of films. Instead, filmmakers have tended to prefer animals like bears and dogs that are more easily anthropomorphized or anthropopathized. This is true not only in animated film, but in live action films as well, including The Incredible Journey (1963), Benji (1974) (and later Benji movies, including Benji the Hunted [1987]), The Adventures of Milo and Otis (1986), The Bear (1988), and Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993), all popular live action feature films featuring bears, dogs, and cats as protagonists. When fish have been featured in films, they have tended to be more dramatically altered than these mammals have been so that their motions are more human and their faces more obviously expressive. Don Knotts’s performance as a man turned into a fish in The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964) provides a good example of this tendency, as does the representation of the fish sidekick, Flounder, in Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989). Flounder’s eyes have green irises, and they are both on the front of his head in a face that is not only human but childlike, with pudgy cheeks, a cute snub nose, and clearly marked eyebrows; he frequently floats at the top of the ocean, holding his face out of the water in a very un-fishy manner, to converse with Ariel, Sebastian (a crab), and Scuttle (a seagull). In Finding Nemo, however, the filmmakers challenge this trend by putting realistic fish at the center of the film. In fact, “Marine experts have praised the creators of Finding Nemo for doing their homework. Animators at Pixar Studios consulted an ichthyologist (fish zoologist) and scuba guru Jean-Michel Cousteau. They also did their own underwater field studies near Kona, Hawaii” (Bly). Finding Nemo thus creates a world in which tropical fish are sympathetic lead characters without sacrificing their fishiness in order to become mere human ciphers.

The fish in Finding Nemo are humanized in one major way, however: their speech. Again, this film distinguishes itself from other films in its genre. Most animated movies for children that use animals as speaking characters approach the issue of talking animals by merely providing the central characters (animal or not) with speech and leaving the rest to their animal noises. Thus, although many of these films have animal protagonists that speak, the range of speaking animals is limited to the species of the main characters (protagonist, antagonist, and sidekicks). In The Lion King, for instance, though there are no humans in the film and all the characters are animals, only some of the animals get to speak. Obviously, the lions speak, as do the hyenas and a few other individual animals of various species (warthog, meerkat, groundhog, a bird or two, as it suits the plot), but in this film the same kind of species hierarchy that we see between human and nonhuman creatures is reproduced, with lions at the top and their food further down. The human/animal dichotomy is simply shifted, becoming more like a predator/prey dichotomy - the bugs that Timon and Pumbaa (a meerkat and warthog) eat do not speak, and neither do the antelope that the lions eat.

In Finding Nemo, however, this kind of hierarchy of predators and prey breaks down, as almost every single creature encountered throughout the film speaks. Obviously, the main characters speak: Nemo, Marlin, Dory (Marlin’s new friend, a forgetful blue tang), as well as the other fish in the tank and on the reef. The sharks that Marlin and Dory encounter - Bruce, Chum, and Anchor - speak as well, even though they are dangerous and attempt to eat the smaller fish. Not only are they given voice despite their predatory position, but they are presented as likeable sharks who are trying to do the right thing (i.e., not eat fish). Later, when Marlin and Dory converse with a school of fish, the school is given one lead voice, but there are clearly voiced individuals within the group as well. Both as a whole and as individuals, the school of fish is recognized as meaningful, communicative.

Another creature Dory and Marlin meet on the trip to Sydney is a blue whale. Interestingly, even though Dory and Marlin do not understand the whale’s language, it is still recognized as a language, and Dory even tries to speak it. She fails, but the message that all creatures have something to say, even if it is not always intelligible to all, is undeniable. As further illustration of this principle, even some creatures who have only minor roles or are seen as basically stupid are given voice: the krill clearly say, “Swim away!” as they try to escape the maw of the whale, and the seagulls that try to eat Dory and Marlin speak as well, though they can repeat only “Mine!” The film does not necessarily proclaim that all creatures are equally intelligent; it does, however, by including even the seagulls and their repetitive cries, argue that all creatures, even those who would prey on the protagonist, are an integral part of the world.

The representation of Nigel, the pelican, provides even more evidence of this concern with giving voice to all animals. Nigel has befriended the fish in the dentist’s fish tank and helps Marlin and Dory find Nemo; in this process, he provides some comic relief, but, more importantly, he makes a key statement about the relationship between himself and other creatures around him: “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta eat.” He, like the sharks, complicates the predator/prey dichotomy surrounding communication and voice that is normally enshrined in such films. Significantly, the few fish who do not speak are those who are sincerely and realistically threatening (unlike Bruce, Chum, and Anchor): the barracuda in the first scene who eats Nemo’s brothers/sisters and mother; the anglerfish who tries to eat Marlin and Dory. These are voiceless, but even they are not simply vilified. Their voicelessness seems to indicate not an unworthiness of communication but a realistic recognition that sometimes communication takes a backseat to action. Sometimes fear breaks down the lines of communication. Sometimes the differences between two species, two groups, are so serious that communication does not come easily or quickly, if at all.

Even humans speak in this movie. This runs counter to another trend among children’s TV shows and movies - an us versus them trend in which the animals (or children) are set up in opposition to the humans (or adults) and the humans (or adults) are not given voice (e.g., Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, or the Charlie Brown movies). It would be all too easy to follow this pattern and to demonize the human dentist for keeping Nemo and the others in the tank, but Finding Nemo refuses to do so. The dentist (who is never named) not only is given a voice but is shown to be well-intentioned, if a bit clumsy and inadvertently dangerous. This, then, seems to provide a connection between humans and animals because all of these characters speak the same language (with the exception of the whale), even though they do not all understand each other. After all, as one tagline from a movie poster says, “Fish are just like people, only flakier.” The movie repeatedly underscores this connection, through allowing both human and animal to speak (if not to each other).

It is important that the dentist speaks for another reason as well. The character of the dentist points to what is, in fact, a major theme of Finding Nemo - the ways in which humans affect the natural world, whether their intentions are good, bad, or indifferent - and his behavior illustrates how one individual can disrupt nature. He is shown to have good intentions, but the effects are nonetheless harmful. He captures Nemo on a diving trip, stealing him away from his father and his community, and later tells a patient of his, “I found that guy struggling for life out on the reef, and I saved him.” Clearly, this is in direct opposition to the experience as Nemo and Marlin see it, but the dentist thinks he has done something good. This is a clear critique of humans’ interventions on behalf of nature; in fact, it is an anti-colonialist critique of the way that humans treat nature as in need of protection, when often what nature needs protection from is, actually, humans. The dentist sees himself as protector of the fish in the tank, as is evidenced by his response to finding Nigel, a seagull, near it. The dentist spots Nigel and chases him off, saying, “No, no, no, no! They’re not your fish. They’re my fish.” In his attempts to protect the fish, he reveals that not only does he think in terms of ownership of the fish rather than recognizing the discrete existence of the fish, but he does not understand the fish tank experience. Gill, one of the fish taken from the ocean and kept in the tank where Nemo is placed, says, “Fish aren’t meant to be in a box, kid. It does things to you.” And, in fact, the behavior of the fish in the tank demonstrates the traumatic effects of being contained like this. They suffer symptoms much like those expressed in post-traumatic stress disorder, exhibiting extreme responses to stimuli, anxiety and depression, and, in some cases, dissociative behavior. It is this very lack of understanding on the dentist’s part that allows him to think he can own these fish and that allows him to see this “ownership” as a good thing for the fish.

Humans’ effects on nature can be seen on an even larger scale elsewhere in Finding Nemo. On Marlin and Dory’s journey to find Nemo, they meet three sharks who live (or at least hold meetings) in an old sunken submarine, surrounded by live, floating mines. Although the sharks have sworn off eating fish, they have a bit of a relapse. In the ensuing chaos, the minefield is set off and a large portion of the ocean floor is destroyed, Marlin and Dory only barely escaping. Here we see the relationship between human society and the natural world as the wreckage of human wars litters the ocean floor and destroys the wildlife that lives among it. Destruction of sea life was never the true intent of the humans who planted these mines, but it was, all too predictably, the result, and nature’s destruction is brought about through human preoccupation and a lack of concern with the environment in which they conduct their wars. In another case, human intentions are more directly focused on nature, but still the intent is primarily to meet human needs, not to consider the needs of or dangers to the natural world. After Nemo manages to escape from the dentist’s tank, and mere moments after being reunited with his father, a fishing net comes down into the water, catching a large school of fish - and Dory. Nemo saves Dory and the other fish by convincing them all to work together, to swim down and resist the fisherman’s net collectively. The fish are saved, but of course we know that this one act will not stop the fishermen from returning to take more fish. Thus we see the varying ways that humans negatively affect nature: with good intentions, as in the dentist’s case; for their own enjoyment, thinking they are not causing any harm; as aftereffects of human war; and for commercial purposes.

Clearly, then, Finding Nemo contains a very environmentally friendly message - nature is valuable, full of life, beautiful, and, because of these traits, worth saving, worth protecting. Because of this, the Humane Society of the United States praised Finding Nemo for “going where few animated features have gone before - to the depths of the sea to portray fish as feeling creatures who deserve to swim in the freedom of the vast oceans, and not the confines of a 4’ x 4’ fish tank!” (Blackmore).

However, this message is complicated by the ways in which audiences engage with the film. The real-life consequences of Finding Nemo, as young viewers try to act on what they have learned in the film, are not so clearly positive. The first complication is caused by the fact that the fish in the film explicitly state that “all drains lead to the ocean.” Obviously, this is not true, but “[a]pparently hundreds of children in North America flushed their pet fishes down the toilet after watching the Disney movie Finding Nemo” (“Don’t Flush the Fish”). The trouble with this, of course, is that no matter how good these children’s intentions are, those fish still wind up dead after being liberated in this way. An increase in the practice of farming reefs to take fish for aquariums (both personal and public/commercial) is another consequence of the film’s popularity. Twenty million tropical fish are harvested annually from coral reefs, often with the use of cyanide (“Don’t Flush the Fish”). As many as 75% of fish collected (with cyanide) die within hours, and improper shipping kills up to 50% of the fish. Undeterred by such numbers, Elwyn Segrest, president of Segrest Farms, a Florida-based fish distributor says, “It’s really pepped up the pet business.” In fact, the company doubled its order of clownfish and maxed out its stock of blue tangs (Brooks). The tourist sector has benefited from the popularity of the movie as well. Aquariums have developed advertising tie-ins to draw in more visitors - “Now that you’ve seen Finding Nemo, come and see the real thing!” (Zoltak) - and Australia “launched a campaign luring American families to the real thing” (“Seeing ‘Nemo’”).

Even the more positive consequences of the popularity of Finding Nemo - young people wanting to volunteer to help the environment - are problematic as they tend to focus attention solely on the types of fish and the types of environment shown in the film. Increases in volunteerism were widely reported following the release of Finding Nemo: “The film’s release also has spurred an increase in volunteerism at [California’s Monterey Bay] aquarium on the part of children and young teens,” and, according to Margaret Brewer, volunteer services manager at the Aquarium of the Pacific, “the film has inspired children and their parents to find out how they can do their part to preserve the ocean environment” (Zoltak). However, this volunteerism, though certainly positive, seems to be exclusively limited to the coral reef environment and certain kinds of fish and animals as seen in the film. This description of children’s reactions illustrates the point: “At the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash., spokeswoman Carolyn Cox said there is only one clownfish at the facility, and it is in a tank that features sea horses. But when kids notice it, they often cry out, ‘Free Nemo. Let him out. Let him out’” (Zoltak). The film has personalized clownfish for the children and they show great concern that “Nemo” is trapped in the aquarium, but the surrounding fish are met with no such courtesy. This particularized concern is an example of spectacularization, which is described by Catriona Sandilands as being “often formed around a landscape or species that conforms to specific aesthetic conventions” (150). Furthermore, she writes, “This construct [of wilderness] is born from a largely consumer desire to see nature as a space apart from human activity; as such, it is not only historically and culturally specific, but it is strongly located in a global tourist logic in which certain natures are desired and desirable destinations and must be preserved so they can be visited” (161). It is not as though Finding Nemo creates a desire to change our attitudes toward and treatment of nature as a whole. Instead, it creates sympathy for and interest in some few creatures and their habitat. It creates a desire for this landscape, this species, not a concern with ecology or the very real consequences of that desire. In short, although tourism and volunteerism in this case is a result of a growing environmental consciousness, that environmental consciousness is limited by its connection to a tourism that itself creates new problems for a nature that has been commodified by the logic of desire.

Given this emphasis on tourism and on ways of enjoying the fish without removing them from their habitat, the actions of the diver who accompanies the dentist when Nemo is taken are telling. He represents the oft-recommended alternative to taking nature itself, which is merely taking pictures - “take only photos and leave only bubbles” - but, as Donna Haraway argues in Primate Visions, this merely represents a different type of colonialism and is thus problematic itself. Haraway describes the camera as “ultimately so superior to the gun for the possession, production, preservation, consumption, surveillance, appreciation, and control of nature” (45). She continues, “To make an exact image is to insure against disappearance, to cannibalize life until it is safely and permanently a specular image, a ghost” (45). Similarly, Susan Sontag writes, “Guns have metamorphosed into cameras in this earnest comedy, the ecology safari, because nature has ceased to be what it had always been - what people needed protection from. Now nature - tamed, endangered, mortal - needs to be protected from people. When we are afraid, we shoot. But when we are nostalgic, we take pictures” (qtd. Haraway 42). The presence of the photo-shooting diver seems innocuous, but truly highlights the danger that the reef is in, how rare it is, how much protection it needs from humans. As Sandilands writes, “The problem is...that this representation comes disguised as a liberation” (141).

Baudrillard’s discussion of representation in Simulacra and Simulation reveals a further difficulty in wholeheartedly praising Finding Nemo’s representations of nature. Baudrillard makes the argument that making nature speak is not necessarily positive: “Animals, like the dead, and so many others, have followed this uninterrupted process of annexation through extermination, which consists of liquidation, then of making the extinct species speak, of making them present the confession of their disappearance” (136). Making the animals speak reveals their nearness to extinction and justifies the position they are in relative to us. Their speech reveals their presence as well as their absence from our lives. Furthermore, Baudrillard writes:

They, the animals, do not speak. In a universe of increasing speech, of the constraint to confess and to speak, only they remain mute, and for this reason they seem to retreat far from us, behind the horizon of truth. But it is what makes us intimate with them. It is not the ecological problem of their survival that is important, but still and always that of their silence. In a world bent on doing nothing but making one speak, in a world assembled under the hegemony of signs and discourse, their silence weighs more and more heavily on our organization of meaning. (137)

In these terms, their silence, their difference is more valuable than their speech; their speech, after all, is false, is imposed, is ventriloquism. Baudrillard continues, “Nowhere do they really speak, because they only furnish the responses one asks for. It is their way of sending the Human back to his circular codes, behind which their silence analyzes us” (138). Thus, the voicing of nature in Finding Nemo takes on a more sinister significance: the creatures’ speech, instead of empowering them, actually reveals the extent to which they have been disempowered, in that we can make them speak, and speak what we want to hear. The sharks, who are tamed by AA-related jokes (“It has been three weeks since my last fish”; “fish are friends, not food”) are a perfect example of our inability to deal with the reality of nature and the violence of their status as predators. This nature does say what we want to hear and tells us what we can be comfortable hearing and accepting regarding human/animal relations. When everyone gets along, we are happy; however, it is hard to love a nature that kills, expertly and without qualm. Vegetarian sharks represent our attempts to make this element of nature disappear, in favor of a friendlier, more politically correct version of nature.

This re-visioning of nature compromises the environmental message of the movie by not allowing it to stand on its own but instead leading us to feel good about our mere awareness of the problems at hand. It also allows us to avoid dealing with these problems because humans are seen as well-meaning, ignorant (and therefore dangerous), but also as separate from nature. Any damage to nature is seen only to affect the ocean world, not the human world; there are no human consequences to our actions. “Fish are just like people,” perhaps, but people are not just like fish, according to the film. Is there, then, any room for interaction between human and nonhuman that is not harmful? Furthermore, does this movie ultimately reinforce the distinction between the two, saying that nature is out there, while humans are not really part of it except when they impose themselves upon it and cause damage in the process?

Importantly, both humans and animals comment on the separation between nature and the human universe. Predictably, the dentist sees humans and animals as part of separate worlds. His behavior throughout the film proves this. Yet it is still revealing that when Gill leaps out of the tank to try to save Nemo, he shouts, “Crikey! All the animals have gone mad!” Clearly, the dentist does not believe that the animals might be acting in their own interest or for their own purposes but continues to see them only as objects for his own pleasure. It is even more significant when the animals reinforce this separation, however. For example, when Marlin tells the three sharks that a diver took his son, Chum’s response is, “Humans. Think they own everything.” Anchor responds, “Probably American.” This is partly a joke about the popular perceptions of Americans around the world, but the division between Americans and all other humans comes as an afterthought, a footnote to the idea that there is this division between animals and the humans who “think they own everything.” There is in this no attempt on the part of the animals to “better” themselves by trying to be more human, no pandering to the human audience’s sense of superiority over nature.

This separation between humans and nonhuman nature is not merely a matter of a few comments or jokes in Finding Nemo, however; it is crucial to the narrative structure of the film. The happy ending is predicated upon the reinstatement of this separation between humans and nature. Sandilands writes, “Wilderness itself relies upon the active subtraction of humans from nature; it is a concept of nature that insists on the careful policing of the boundary between human and nonhuman, and on the equally careful policing of human activity to allow only certain kinds of (consuming) relationships to work” (148). Even though Finding Nemo provides an alternative to the traditional nature films described by Nollman, and even though the nature of the film is far richer and more emotionally engaging than the “vast wildlife laboratory” Nollman critiques in those traditional nature films, this film still relies on the separation between humans and nature in order to create meaning. The world is not right again until Nemo, Marlin, and Dory return to their reef, far away from the effects of meddling humans. The boundary has been restored at the end of the film, and all is again right with the world.

And thus, the potential for productive connections between human and nonhuman nature recedes into the distance, leaving only the commodification and spectacularization of nature available as ways of connecting with it when the film ends. Jennifer Price writes about the commodification of nature in her essay “Looking for Nature at the Mall” that “the [Nature Company] stores connect us not so much to what nature is as to what Nature means” (839). She continues, saying, “We’ve used Nature to circumvent our own complicity in the serious modern problems we critique. . . . The Nature Company constitutes a store-size contradiction between how we want to connect to nature and how we actually do, and between what we want Nature to be and what nature actually is” (850). Similarly, the after effects of Finding Nemo reveal this contradiction between “how we want to connect to nature and how we actually do.” Finding Nemo allows us to ask what kinds of relationships are acceptable in this situation, as well as calling attention to the giant contradictions between what we want to congratulate ourselves for believing and being aware of and what we actually do about it.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan P, 1994.

Blackmore, Sue. “The HSUS announces winners of the eighteenth annual Genesis Awards.” The Humane Society of the United States. 23 Feb. 2004. 1 June 2008. http://www.hsus.org/press_and_publications/press_releases/the_hsus_announces_winners_of_ the_ eighteenth_annual_genesis_awards.html

Bly, Laura. “Travellers in search of the real Nemos.” Earthdive.com. 27 June 2003. http://www.earthdive.com/site/news/newsdetail.asp?id=152.

Brooks, Scott. “‘Nemo’ sends in the clown fish to home aquariums.” USA Today. 23 June 2003. http://www.usatoday.com/life/movies/news/2003-06-23-nemo-fish_x.htm.

“Don’t Flush the Fish.” Alternatives Journal. 01 Jan 2004.

Finding Nemo. Dir. Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich. Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures, 2003.

Haraway, Donna J. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. NY: Routledge, 1990.

Nollman, Jim. “What’s Wrong With Nature?” Interspecies Newsletter. 1990. 31 August 2007. http://www.interspecies.com/pages/nat-film.html.

Price, Jennifer. “Looking for Nature at the Mall.” Rereading America. 5th ed. Ed. Gary Colombo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. 836-60.

Sandilands, Catriona. "Between the Local and the Global: Clayoquot Sound and Simulacral Politics." A Political Space: Reading the Global Through Clayoquot Sound. Ed. Warren Magnusson and Karena Shaw. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2003. 139-167.

“Seeing ‘Nemo.’” Chicago Sun-Times. 6 Jul 2003.

Zoltak, James. “Aquariums Finding ‘Nemo’ Is Good for Biz.” Amusement Business. 26 Jan. 2004. http://www.allbusiness.com/services/amusement-recreation-services/4589732-1.html.

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