2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.
When Finding Nemo just kept swimming into our lives 17 years ago, it did what most Pixar movies set out to do: It made children laugh and adults cry. (The film also hauled in more than $870 million at the box office, enough to justify a good-but-not-as-great sequel.) But what made Finding Nemo so transcendent for certain impressionable young viewers was the fact that it was set mostly below the surface, exploring a vibrant underwater world where sharks are trying to go vegetarian by attending AA-like meetings, sea turtles (who are totally high) ride gnarly currents, and fish living in a dentist’s office become obsessed with the minutiae of dental procedures. It was all, to quote my little turtle son Squirt, sweeeeet.
And if there’s anything you should know about myself and Megan Schuster, it’s that we love two things: the ocean and ranking things. So, naturally, to commemorate Finding Nemo’s 17th anniversary, we’re going to rank all the characters from this iconic film. Last time around we ranked pop culture tigers, and enough people were enraged that Hobbes from Calvin and Hobbes landed in eighth that we considered going into witness protection, so we’re hoping the site’s dear readers don’t have such strong feelings about Darla, a demon child, or Mr. Ray, the most irresponsible teacher in the Great Barrier Reef.
Pun intended, let’s dive in. —Miles Surrey
20. The Barracuda
Miles Surrey: It’s hard to get any worse than the fish responsible for nearly eradicating an entire clown fish family. Even compared to other Traumatic Pixar Moments, the barracuda attack at the beginning of Finding Nemo sticks with you—it makes you empathize with Marlin’s bone-deep fear of everything in the ocean. (Yes, Marlin is sort of annoying and overprotective, but I would also be super paranoid if something ate my wife and dozens of my children.) If it’s any consolation, there’s an Easter egg in Toy Story 4 that implies the barracuda is caught and mounted on an antique-shop wall. Remember, kids: Death is the Pixar universe’s great equalizer.
Surrey: All you need to know about Darla is that Finding Nemo repeatedly uses the music cue from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho to introduce the character. This little monstrosity is a fish serial killer: Every time her dentist uncle gifts her a fish, she relentlessly shakes the bag until the poor little fella goes belly-up. It’s a vicious cycle. Behold, the grim reaper in a sweater that screams “Target sales rack” and a garish retainer:
I’m pretty sure Darla is going to be interrogated by Holden Ford and Bill Tench on the eighth season of Mindhunter—not just because she feels zero remorse for killing fish but because of the life path she was probably set on after the traumatic dentist’s visit when a pelican swooped into the office tearing shit up while a live fish landed in her hair and she screamed her head off. (Seems like something that would need to be unpacked in therapy a few years down the line, like Sid getting confronted by talking toys in Toy Story.) “FISHY!!!!!” she shouted as Nemo escaped her clutches and got flushed into the Sydney sewers before a bunch of water splashed back into her face, to which I say: Darla, retire bitch.
Schuster: This is slightly off topic, but do we think that headgear is really necessary? Like, does her dentist uncle just keep plying her with fish to get her parents to spend ridiculous amounts of money on not-super-essential dental procedures? Did Dr. Sherman actually create this monster??
Surrey: Dr. Sherman is the Norma Bates to Darla’s Norman.
18. All the Seagulls Who Say “Mine!”
Surrey: Seagulls are just pigeons with better branding and a taste for brine.
17. The Fish Fathers From Nemo’s School
Schuster: As far as film portrayals of dads go, this one is pretty good. First, we meet the dads as they huddle together in the school yard, seemingly afraid that one mom fish will swim up and own their parenting styles. Extremely realistic. Second, DAD JOKES GALORE. As soon as Bill points out that Marlin is a clown fish, you know exactly where the conversation is going to go. Dads love nothing more than making an obvious quip and embarrassing their kids in front of potential new friends. Third, they do not give a fuck about what their kids are doing. Go to the drop-off? Sure! Torment a flounder by teasing him on the side where he has no eyes? Why not. All these guys wanna do is ship their kids off to their teacher and go normcore it up at work, and honestly, I respect it.
16. The Fish Kids Who Dared Nemo to Touch “the Butt”
Surrey: Never give into peer pressure, or otherwise a colossal creature in a dive suit will scoop you up and transport you to a dentist’s office. The “finding” part of Finding Nemo could’ve been avoided if Tad (the butterfly fish), Sheldon (the sniffly sea horse), and Pearl (the inky octopus) didn’t come up with a dumb dare to swim out into the open ocean and get close to “the butt.” (Yes, I’m aware that Pearl is technically a mollusk, not a fish, but pointing that out doesn’t make you cool.) Obviously, Nemo is also at fault for wanting to stick it to his dad and impress his new friends—he touched the butt!—and none of that would’ve happened if Mr. Ray had done a better job keeping an eye out for his students. Frankly, there are so many characters in Finding Nemo that have to take an L.
15. Mr. Ray
Schuster: Buckle up, kids, because I have a few Mr. Ray–related thoughts to get off my chest.
Mr. Ray is every high school teacher who thought they were “cool” and “different” because they put together alternative lesson plans. Listen: Just because you can sing a lesson instead of speak it doesn’t mean that you should. And also, just because the kids all like you doesn’t mean you’re a responsible adult. Point A:
In this photo alone, I count 15 grade-school-aged fish; there are a few more lurking just out of frame. Mr. Ray decides that Day 1 of school is the perfect time to take all 15-20 of these kids out on a field trip by himself. Who does that? Where are the permission slips? The parent chaperones? The seat belts? And not only does he take these kids out on a field trip, he takes them to the drop-off, an objectively dangerous area where there could be barracudas, sharks, or, as it turns out, humans. Then if that’s not enough, he tells the kids to “feel free to explore, but stay close.” Yeah, OK, for sure.
Surrey: OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, I endanger kids!
Schuster: How Marlin ever let Nemo back into this quack’s clutches is beyond me. The Undersea Board of Education should have stripped Mr. Ray of his teaching license.
14. The Sassy Fish School
Schuster: Poor Marlin is just trying to find someone, anyone, who isn’t Dory to ask for directions to Sydney when he encounters this school of chuckleheads:
First they completely ignore him. Then when he’s trying to let Dory down easy and finish his journey alone, they circle back and look at him like he’s the worst creature in the sea. They do earn a few brownie points for being gentlefish to Dory, and for their marvelous impressions. I mean, this is a tough look for Marlin, but it’s pretty great content:
Give these guys their own special on Comedy Central.
Surrey: Canonically, these fish are New Yorkers.
13. Philip Sherman, Australia’s Finest Dentist
Surrey: I will never be able to forget this guy’s work address—P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney—and I will never get over his aggressively Australian vibes in the film. (Sadly, that extremely Australian-sounding address does not actually exist.) Would love to go snorkeling with Philip Sherman before putting some shrimp on the barbie and grabbing some Foster’s beer from the cooler, mate! (Apologies to my Australian second cousins, who have now disowned me.) But all Sherman’s laid-back qualities are exactly what make him a terrifying dentist. Want to see what one of my recurring nightmares looks like?
When Nigel the pelican rams into his office window, Sherman’s pretty blasé about accidentally yanking a patient’s tooth out in a quiet contender for the most disturbing moment of the movie. “Good thing I pulled the right one, eh, Prime Minister?” Sherman quips, which [deep breath] means he’s such a respected dentist that the most powerful person in the country lets him clean out his molars. Philip Sherman seems like a good hang, but it’s a pretty damning indictment of the Australian dental community if he’s the best man for the job. (No, I’m not overthinking this kid’s movie AT ALL.) Oh, and he should stop scooping up fish from the ocean to put in his office fish tank!
Schuster: Wow, Miles, I think you might have just uncovered Finding Nemo’s great conspiracy. Sherman’s fishing practices have to be illegal, right? Maybe he has some kind of under-the-table arrangement with the Australian prime minister where he provides free dental work in exchange for not getting fined/arrested. I’m pretty convinced of this theory I just made up.
12. Helpful Whale
Schuster: If this scene didn’t inspire you and all your grade school friends to spend weeks saying things like “thAAaAAaank yOOOooUuuu” and “A different dialect … maybe I should try humpback,” then we are not the same.
In this covert operation to rescue Nemo, the whale serves mostly as transpo. But even though Marlin isn’t convinced that the whale is helping them—or that it even understood Dory’s inane attempts at speaking its language—this proves to be a bonding experience for him and Dory, and the thing that eventually leads them to Sydney.
Surrey: I LOOOOoooVVeeeEEEE ThHHHHiiiSSSS WHAAAAAAALLLLlllleeEEEEeeeee. (Sorry.)
Schuster: There’s a bit on The Simpsons (isn’t there always?) that describes my feelings about Coral pretty well. It begins with Bart playing a prank on his classmates, then asking a morose-looking Milhouse if this isn’t the greatest day ever. “There are no more great days, Bart,” Milhouse responds with a long sigh. “Just days.”
We go on to find out that the night before, Milhouse had started up the Finding Nemo DVD on his own, only to discover that there was an “extra” chapter (remember those?) at the start—one his mother usually skipped. Well, you know the rest: Coral gets savagely killed by a barracuda, Nemo grows up motherless, and Milhouse gets so buried in his couch that he has to be rescued by the fire department. “If death can happen to a fish,” Milhouse tells Bart, seemingly with a new lease on life, “it can happen to anyone. So you’ve gotta live life while you can.”
Milhouse goes on to propose to, and get rejected by, Lisa once again, but the lesson still rings true. On a per-minute basis, Coral is one of the most impactful characters in the entire Nemo extended universe.
Surrey: I still think Littlefoot’s mom dying in The Land Before Time is the front-runner for Saddest Mom Death in a Kid’s Movie—of course, Bambi’s mother is also up there—but Coral’s death is wrenching. Another thing we have to consider is that Marlin and Coral’s anemone probably didn’t have a ton of resale value after the barracuda incident and they probably lost a lot of money on that Fish Mortgage.
Schuster: I’m reporting you.
10. Anchor and Chum
Surrey: Anchor and Chum are friendship goals. It’s difficult to embrace a fish-free diet when you’re a shark—what are they eating to survive, copious amounts of seaweed?!—and while Anchor, Chum, and Bruce don’t have a flawless moral record once one of them catches the scent of blood, it’s the thought of going vegetarian that counts. Anyway, get yourself a bro, like Anchor, who tries to defend your rampage for fresh meat by shouting, “He never even knew his father!”
Schuster: Honestly some great emotional maturity from Anchor. We stan dude friends who talk about their feelings and past traumas.
Schuster: I would like for Squirt to be my new life coach. This face alone—
—could get me to do anything. Skydive. Set myself on fire. Coat myself in chum and swim into shark-infested waters. Just knowing that this little dude was cheering me on (“Noggin!”) would be enough.
Surrey: Bruce did his best Jack Torrance impression when Dory got a nosebleed, and even though that was a sequence more frightening than 95 percent of what happens on-screen in the Jaws sequels, he’s otherwise … a pretty cool shark? If Bruce were a human, he would be the burly guy in the friend group who’s really into hugs. Just, uhhhh, whatever you do, don’t hang out with Bruce if you have any open cuts or really have to use the bathroom.
Schuster: Gill is in a tough spot. He comes across as a villain, even though he’s really not. He puts Nemo’s life in danger even as he’s trying to ultimately save him. He’s the escape planner for a group of fish who, at times, seem pretty content to stay in captivity. It doesn’t help Gill’s image that he often lurks in the shadows and acts like someone from Moody’s Point. Eventually though, Ol’ Gill is redeemed, and he manages to lead all his friends to the ocean … even if they’re in plastic bags when they get there.
Surrey: I would love to psychoanalyze Nigel, a boisterous pelican who’s really obsessed with dental procedures and befriends everyone in the office fish tank while also presumably eating other fish out of the ocean for sustenance. (Pixar, I have some notes!) Credit where it’s due, though, since Nigel gives Marlin and Dory a very helpful assist by rescuing them from not just another pelican but an entire horde of hungry “Mine!” seagulls.
Is Nigel a traitor to pelican kind, the unsung hero of Dentist Twitter, or the stealth MVP of Finding Nemo? Well, why can’t he be all three?
Schuster: All three! All three!
Schuster: Pixar’s decision to make a 150-year-old sea turtle act and talk like a stoner is one that should be celebrated far more often. Creating a character like Crush, it would have been easy to think, “OK, 150 years old, he can be some crotchety old turtle who harps on Marlin and shows him how not to be a father.” Instead, we get a blazed dude who refers to his child as “offspring,” says things like “Jellyman,” and indirectly teaches Marlin how to live and let live. People call Phil Jackson the Zen Master, but honestly I think he should at least go halfsies on that title with Crush.
Surrey: The only thing that would’ve made Crush a better character is if he were actually voiced by Phil Jackson—as long as he doesn’t start talking about having a “Native American bond” with Marlin.
Surrey: Is Nemo kind of a dweeb? Sure, but in his defense, he grew up with an overbearing dad who was really into homeschooling. Nemo is just a kid who wanted a bit of adventure in his life—and got way more than he bargained for when he was plucked out of the water by a scuba diving dentist.
Nemo learned a lot on his chaotic journey from the ocean to Wallaby Way, Sydney, and back—including how long sea turtles live. (Mild spoiler: a long time.) And if you didn’t cry when Nemo hugged his dad at the very end of the film before going on another school trip led by Mr. Ray, who should be sued for negligence, then I don’t know what else to say.
Surrey: As much as I didn’t want to rank the character voiced by the multimillionaire who isn’t paying her staff their full salaries during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic high on the list, Dory is unimpeachable. The regal blue tang with short-term memory loss is both one of the funniest characters in Finding Nemo—“Just keep swimming!” found a place in the lexicon immediately—and its emotional center. It is devastating to watch Dory explain that being with Marlin feels like “home” and that she’s scared to lose him.
So, yes, much like it’s hard to deny that Michael Jordan is an incredible basketball player in spite of seeming like a horrible teammate, Ellen DeGeneres’s Dory is one of the best parts of Finding Nemo. But in every other facet of Ellen’s life, Dakota Johnson knows what’s up.
Schuster: Watching any Pixar movie can put you on an emotional roller coaster. The first few minutes of Up scarred me for life, and if you can get through Miguel’s version of “Remember Me” at the end of Coco without blubbering, you should be studied. But growing older with Finding Nemo, and looking at the relationship between Marlin and Nemo, has been a particularly interesting experience.
Watching this movie as a child, I obviously sided with Nemo. Of course he should be allowed to push boundaries and explore for himself. Marlin just seemed like a wet blanket (again, pun intended) who may have saved Nemo in the end, but he was also the one who pushed him over the proverbial edge in the first place. Now, though, in my advanced age (late 20s), the lens has shifted. Marlin has become a sympathetic character—one whose intentions are pure, even if his actions don’t always properly reflect them. He’s doing the best he can to provide a good, safe life for his son, while also dealing with the trauma of losing his wife and 300-plus babies in one fell swoop. Sure, he starts out as basically the dictionary definition of a helicopter parent, but he would (and almost does multiple times) give his life for his son. His journey—both physical and mental—throughout this film is truly a lovely thing to behold.
1. The Tank Gang
Schuster: This may be somewhat of an upset, given that Dory and her shtick were an immediate cultural sensation, stoner turtles teach Marlin how to love, and the movie is literally called Finding Nemo. But this collection of misfit fish might be my favorite ensemble of all time. I mean, do you remember this scene?
We’ve got Jacques, the extremely French shrimp who acts as the tank’s maid; Gurgle, the germophobe who’s obsessed with studying dental procedure (honestly, they all are); Peach, the starfish who spends half her time repeating what she’d previously said while stuck up against the glass; Deb and her “sister,” Flo; Bubbles, who you probably remember for constantly saying “bubbles”; and Bloat, the deep-voiced pufferfish who coined the phrase “Mount Wannahockaloogie.” They all have their own neuroses—which is something I absolutely did not pick up on as a child—and not to get all sOcIaL CoMmEnTaRy, but it’s pretty interesting that they got this way in captivity!
Surrey: We need one of those BuzzFeed quizzes that matches our quarantine personality with a member of the Tank Gang. (I started out as Gurgle but now I’m Bubbles.)
Schuster: Anywho: This crew is a great hang, and they provide some much-needed levity to a Nemo situation that would otherwise seem pretty dour.
SHARK BAIT, HOO HA HA.