Finding Nemo is an Ocean of Disability Representation

Since Finding Dory is coming out next week, I decided to rewatch Finding Nemo to prepare myself for the hype.

It still holds up remarkably well as a movie. It’s totally engrossing and you get invested in the world and the emotion. But the thing that really strikes me about this film is that it’s one of the few animated films (and, well, films in general) almost abundant in disability  representation.

You have Nemo with his malformed arm, Dory’s short term memory loss (and possible other issues), Marlin’s anxiety/paranoia, and the fish in Nemo’s tank have a lot of their own problems (one fish is scarred, another has an extreme fear of germs, one is super attached to bubbles and is implied to have gone nuts from all those years of captivity, and another is convinced her reflection is her sister).

Now, whether or not any of this is GOOD representation depends on the viewer. With the exception of Gil (the scarred fish), the fish with their own issues are played more for humour, so that can be offensive. Nemo isn’t an entirely well developed character, so some people may either see him as empowering or generic inspiration porn.

I do think the individual representation of Marlin and Dory is pretty good. As someone who does have anxiety, Marlin is pretty accurate and relatable, and it makes sense given his traumatic event. And of course Dory is a great character in her own right, and I’m glad she’s getting her own movie.

That said, I wasn’t entirely invested in their relationship. A lot of the time Marlin was rather rude and condescending to Dory, and at some points treated her like a child (you know, a common form of ableism). He wasn’t gentle or patient with her for most of the movie, and that kind of took me out of their relationship. Also Marlin’s casual ableism towards his son at the beginning (the typical ‘oh he can’t do it because he’s disabled’) made me cringe. I’m glad he learned better, but still, it makes me wish that the movie focused more on Nemo and Dory and less on Marlin learning “oh wait, maybe I SHOULDN’T be so ableist!”

Still, this is one of the few movies where disabled characters (both in the physical and mental departments) actually exist and aren’t totally demonized, and that’s pretty major. It’s still kind of sad that people are more sympathetic towards disabled fish characters than they are to disabled human characters. The use of animals instead of humans makes me worry that while some parents of disabled children will look at the movie and realize that their children are capable, others will go “wow, that was a great movie” and continue to treat their children like crap.

Well, I’m certainly interested in how Finding Dory will continue this at any rate. But I really wish we can start seeing more disability representation in more Pixar films (and film in general, but especially Pixar, since they’re capable of telling great stories but seem to limit who they tell them with).