How 'Finding Nemo' Forever Shifted the Power Dynamic Between Disney and Pixar

(Infinity and Beyond is a regular bi-weekly column documenting the 25-year filmography of Pixar Animation Studios, film by film. In today’s column, writer Josh Spiegel highlights Finding Nemo.)

Pixar Animation Studios had not stepped wrong with its first four feature films. Though they weren’t all perfect, the two Toy Story films, A Bug’s Life, and Monsters, Inc. had their fair share of fans, critical praise, and awards. What’s more, each of the films had been a big success at the worldwide box office, with Monsters, Inc. being the biggest hit of all. Remaking a sequel in nine months? Easy. Fending off claims of plagiarism? No sweat. Their films had even become so instantly famous that the Walt Disney Company was using them as the foundation for theme-park rides, merchandise, and even more. Hell, A Bug’s Life inspired a themed land in Disney’s California Adventure when it opened in February of 2001.

Yet below the surface, there was trouble brewing. As impressive as Pixar’s track record was so far, the CEO of the Walt Disney Company, Michael Eisner, was convinced that they were due for a reality check. That phrase isn’t just a whim of this writer — it’s a phrase he used in communicating with the Disney board of directors in advance of the studio’s fifth feature. He’d seen early cuts of the upcoming title, and was very unimpressed with the result. It was the story of a neurotic clownfish whose son goes missing in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. And Eisner was convinced the way audiences reacted to the film would remind Pixar who was really boss in their distribution deal.

With hindsight, we can say that Finding Nemo did indeed serve as a reminder of who was boss between Pixar and Disney. It just wasn’t the answer Michael Eisner expected or wanted.

I Know Funny

Eisner’s comments were in a letter from the late summer of 2002, and to his credit (though it doesn’t do so much now to clarify), the version he saw of Finding Nemo isn’t the version we all know. As has been the case up to this point in the series, and will continue being true for a number of future titles, Finding Nemo went through some drastic revisions before it arrived in theaters in the summer of 2003. But Eisner’s combativeness towards Pixar had extended beyond this specific film, going as far back as the late 1990s.

At that time, as discussed in 2003 in New York magazine, the new studio chairman of Disney, Joe Roth, came to Eisner with an idea. Though Pixar, based near San Francisco, had made just one film at that point, they were on the rise and the animation industry had been shaken by the success of Toy Story. Why not, proposed Roth, buy Pixar? John Lasseter could help revitalize the flagging Disney Animation unit, and the entire studio could change its future overnight. “Eisner threw Roth out of his office,” the article concludes. Buying Pixar wasn’t in the cards then for Michael Eisner.

And when Eisner watched the version of Finding Nemo that led him to presume an upcoming reality check, he likely felt emboldened. The story was the one we all know — a widowed clownfish with just one son, the eager and physically scarred Nemo, goes on the search after his son is taken by a human diver, and is joined by a flighty, friendly Blue Tang. But the layout of the story was different in a key way that made little dramatic sense. 

Just Keep Swimming

The opening scene of Finding Nemo is initially charming before becoming disquieting and then haunting: Marlin (voiced brilliantly by Albert Brooks) and his wife Coral (Elizabeth Perkins) look lovingly on their massive brood of fish eggs, before flirting a bit in the anemone patch they call home. And then they’re shocked to see the rest of the reef vanish quickly because of the arrival of a bloodthirsty barracuda. Marlin tries to get Coral to back away, but she’s unable to kick her protective gene. She goes to barricade the predator from their eggs, only to be killed, and have all but one of the eggs eaten. In the end, Marlin names the one remaining egg Nemo (a name Coral was thinking of before she died), and vows to protect Nemo no matter what.

That is not the opening scene Michael Eisner saw in advance of that dismissive letter to the Disney board. Nor was Albert Brooks the original voice of the nebbishy hero. In the early going, Pixar had cast someone else as Marlin: William H. Macy, one of the great modern American character actors. Macy, on the face of it, would seem like the perfect type of actor to play an intensely focused, desperate, loving but frustrated father. However, the combination of Macy and a series of flashbacks that gradually revealed the details of that opening scene only made Marlin seem obnoxious for most of the film. 

The flashback structure is perhaps the biggest key to why Finding Nemo wasn’t working at first. The film we’ve all seen has no flashbacks to speak of; we learn instantly what happened to Marlin’s wife and other children, which immediately clarifies why he’s so neurotic afterwards. (Remember, in that opening scene, Marlin’s the one parent preaching a calmer approach in the face of terror.) The earlier version doled out the story of Marlin and Coral in small doses, eventually making clear what really happened to her, and what made Marlin so overprotective. Writer/director Andrew Stanton, on the commentary track for the DVD, acknowledged that the big key to removing the flashbacks was the lack of a major revelation — even in its flashback form, the result was the same, and delaying the audience’s awareness only served to alienate them. (It’s worth noting, however, that Stanton must really enjoy that storytelling trick: his 2012 live-action/CG adaptation of John Carter doles out the dark backstory of the title character in a similar fashion, down to the part where his wife and children have been killed. The sequel to Finding Nemo, the 2016 film Finding Dory, teases the title character’s backstory via flashback as well.)

Fish Are Friends

And even if that wasn’t the case, there was another unavoidable problem with the casting of Marlin. As enormously talented as William H. Macy was, he wasn’t the right blend of funny and appealing as the hero. And so, midway through production, Macy was recast with the star and writer of such incredible comedies as Lost in America and Real Life. Albert Brooks had some voice-over work under his belt by the time he was hired. He’d shown up in a handful of episodes of The Simpsons and provided the voice of a neurotic tiger in the 1998 remake of Dr. Dolittle. But his work as Marlin would represent both a wonderful encapsulation of his style of comedy and a perfect way to make the character charming and frustrating all at once. 

Charming and frustrating all at once is an equally perfect encapsulation of the character Marlin is matched by in his search for his son. That would be Dory, the Blue Tang who suffers from short-term memory loss. Stanton, per the DVD commentary, was inspired to cast comedian and actress Ellen DeGeneres after watching an episode of her ABC sitcom Ellen in which she “changed the subject five times before finishing one sentence”. DeGeneres, by 2003, was just beginning to experience a second wind in her fame that has lasted her nearly two decades. (Ellen had long since been canceled, with the famous “Puppy Episode” in which the character came out as lesbian, much like the actress herself, being both widely viewed and heavily controversial.) DeGeneres had kept her stand-up career going, though; just a few weeks after Finding Nemo premiered, HBO aired her best special to date, Here and Now. And just months later, her daytime talk show began airing in syndication. In some strange way, her stardom began right here.

There was one other notable recasting, shining a little bit of insight into how Pixar attempted to solve as much characterization as possible through casting as through screenwriting. Though it’s unknown which role she was up for, Megan Mullally had been picked to voice a character in the film. (If I had to guess, and it is just that, I’d say she would’ve played Deb, the scatterbrained aquarium fish who thinks her reflection is her twin sister.) Mullally, at the time, was best-known as the shrill-voiced Karen on the NBC sitcom Will and Grace. Her casting, as she eventually realized, was based on the expectation that she would do the same voice for the animated film, in spite of that not being her natural voice. When she refused, she was let go. 

Grab A Shell

Visually, the biggest challenge of Finding Nemo was a challenge to any animator: a majority of the film was, naturally, going to take place underwater. Though animating water wasn’t quite as difficult as animating humans via computer, it wasn’t an easy task. Still, Stanton had believed as far back as 1992 (three years before Pixar’s first computer-animated film was a reality) that computer animation would be more well-equipped to tackle the challenge of the sea than hand-drawn animation, as noted in the Leslie Iwerks documentary The Pixar Story. In the end, the animation of Finding Nemo was never a true problem; as with the previous Pixar films, humans were a part of the film without being so dominant as to be distracting or visually unpleasant. And the depiction of the oceans near Australia is lovely to look at even 17 years later. Visually speaking, Finding Nemo represents a turning point for Pixar. The plasticity of previous characters and settings, a natural issue to approach with earlier computer technology, was gone. The character and production design are remarkably rich, full of depth, and vibrant colors.

That, of course, didn’t matter much to Michael Eisner, at a time when the relationship between Disney and Pixar couldn’t be more fraught. In hindsight, the explanation for why Eisner didn’t value Pixar the way he perhaps should have is largely focused on one of the public faces of the upstart animation studio at the time: the late Steve Jobs. To say that Eisner and Jobs didn’t get along would be putting it lightly. They had constantly butted heads, as far back as the release of the original Toy Story (which could easily explain why Eisner was so displeased at Joe Roth’s suggestion to buy Pixar back in 1997). 

Robert Iger, the man who would replace Eisner as the CEO of the Walt Disney Company, related to author Walter Isaacson in his biography of Jobs, “[Michael] never felt that he needed Pixar as much as he really did.” The pride Eisner felt towards Walt Disney Animation Studios was, at the time, understandable but also largely misplaced. It was true that the early successes of the Disney Renaissance had enabled the studio to expand its animation reach with Pixar. But the back half of the 1990s and the early 2000s weren’t strong years for Disney Animation at the box office. (In the eight years between Pixar’s first film and Finding Nemo, only three films released by the Walt Disney Company domestically made more money than a single Pixar title: Armageddon, The Sixth Sense, and Signs.)

I’m Your Conscience

If nothing else, from the outside looking in and looking back, Eisner’s refusal to engage with Pixar, and his seeming thrill at watching them fail, feels like nothing less than a bad case of schadenfreude. At the domestic box office, the numbers didn’t lie: between 1995 and 2002, only one film released directly through the Walt Disney Pictures banner had outgrossed any of Pixar’s four films: the 1999 adaptation of Tarzan, which outgrossed A Bug’s Life by $9 million. (And for a long time, A Bug’s Life was Pixar’s lowest-grossing film by a big stretch.) Even the well-liked 2002 animated film Lilo & Stitch didn’t do quite so well. It would take until 2010 for any Walt Disney Animation Studios film to do better than Tarzan at the box office, with the arrival of Tangled.

Yet in the early 2000s, Michael Eisner was convinced: Pixar was a bad bet, a case of pride going before the fall, and Disney Animation deserved to get the double-down treatment. Finding Nemo would just prove the point that what Disney needed was what it already had: the rights to make sequels to films like Toy Story by itself. Of course, Michael Eisner wound up being wrong in more ways than one. The early cut that he saw didn’t reflect the final film, which is instead one of the most well-written films in Pixar’s history. The tightness of the script, the careful seeding of character arcs and payoff moments, the emotional depth, and the brilliant voice work all make for a film that bridges the gap between early and late Pixar.

One of the earliest trends in Pixar’s films was to transplant human foibles onto non-human characters. What does the commute to work look like when we’re watching monsters clocking in and out, instead of humans? How does the big city look when the city isn’t that big at all, unless you’re the size of an insect? Or, in this film, how does the transition of little children leaving home to go to school for the first time look, when your child is a fish?  These jokes largely wind up being left in the first act; they’re funny, but they’re also familiar to a point. (The other part of the film that indulges in this kind of humor is wittier: when Nemo winds up in the aquarium of a dentist’s office, he realizes that the other fish have been there so long that they’re as knowledgeable about different dentistry tools and procedures that they’re treating each patient like appointment television.)

Like, Whoa

But the core emotional relationship of Finding Nemo is between Marlin and Dory, who ends up being something of a surrogate child. It takes Marlin a long time throughout his journey to accept that he’s being too protective of his only son; his intentions are good, of course, but all he’s doing is pushing his son away. Dory, on the other hand, wants to get closer to Marlin (in a platonic way) simply because something about him and his quest has enabled her to retain memories past their typical expiration date. The key moment comes late, after Marlin mistakenly thinks his son is dead and plans on wandering the sea aimlessly. Dory pleads with him: “When I’m with you…I remember.” It’s a wonderfully acted scene by DeGeneres, and also the rare case of Pixar’s attempts to wring tears out of its audience coming from a third-act payoff that’s methodically built upon in earlier scenes, instead of nakedly designed from the start. The more you know about Dory, the more gutting this moment is.

Finding Nemo is not the most groundbreaking film that Pixar Animation Studios has made. But it allowed those groundbreaking films to exist by pushing the dramatic limits of what modern family animation could do, just a bit more than before. Michael Eisner was doubtful, but in the end, he was wrong. Finding Nemo was not only the highest-grossing film Pixar had made to date, it was Disney’s highest-grossing film of 2003. (2003 was also the same year as the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which made $305 million domestically.) Finding Nemo was an unqualified hit — with $339 million domestically in its initial release, the film would be Pixar’s biggest success until the 2010 threequel Toy Story 3

Finding Nemo also raked in plenty of plaudits from critics and awards-giving bodies alike. Unlike the previous Pixar film, this was able to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, also scoring nominations for Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Sound Editing. But at the same time, Pixar Animation Studios was ready to bolt from Disney. Eisner and Jobs were equally stubborn (though in this case, it’s much easier to see why Jobs was refusing to back down). Even as Disney Animation was about to stumble through its weakest creative and financial years in a long time, with titles like Brother Bear and Home on the Range failing to make a dent at the box office, Eisner was willing to let Pixar go, at least to maintain some semblance of pride.

But not just yet. Pixar had a couple more films to deliver, including their first from an outside filmmaker, someone who hadn’t been ensconced in Pixar’s culture from Day One. And unlike their previous efforts, this director wasn’t going to make humans a sideshow, but the main attraction.

Next Time: Get ready for something incredible.

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