Finding Nemo presents parallel story lines following A) Marlin’s journey to find his son Nemo, taken by a dentist for his aquarium, and B) Nemo’s life and then attempted escape from that dentist’s aquarium. Watching it last night with my toddler, I was struck by the similarities in structure to prison break films. Forefront in my mind was The Shawshank Redemption.
The tropes of the prison break are quoted from the excellent TV Tropes website.
The Big Idea: Prison movie protagonists are almost always the new guy, who on his first day does something to gain a lifer’s trust. The lifer will then hip the fresh meat to the escape plan and introduce the conspirators. Nearly always, the plan is fortuitously just days away from fruition, which is a writer’s trick for confining the action to a short stretch of time.
The prison in Finding Nemo is an aquarium in an ocean-side dentist’s office. The other fish in the tank are “lifers” – they were purchased from pet stores and have spent their lives in captivity. Except one. Angel, like Nemo, is a fish of the ocean. He’s the gruff, scarred lifer who recognizes the potential in Nemo.
When Nemo gets sucked up into the water-intake for the filter, the other fish move to pull him to safety, but Angel shoos them away, telling Nemo how to swim out of the tube on his own. Nemo accomplishes this, and the act ingratiates him to Angel and the rest of the group.
The fishoners soon learn that Nemo is going to be gifted to the dentist’s niece Darla, a infamous killer of fish. This is the impetus to move the plot forward quickly. They must get Nemo out. Angel has long wanted to get back to the ocean, and with Nemo’s impending fate, Angel sees a new opportunity to enact his long-imagined escape plan. Crucially, Nemo is small enough to play the linchpin role in shutting down the tank’s filter. And if the plan goes off, the broken filter will mean the dentist has to clean the tank, and the fish will have a chance to escape out the window.
Of course, Nemo nearly gets dismantled by the tank filter’s fan when the fish enact their plan. Angel reconsiders his motives and the cost Nemo almost paid for their attempt at escape. He regrets enacting the plan and loses hope of escape.
Oh no, the snitch! Every prison has a snitch, a weaselly character who gives information to the guards in exchange for cigarettes. At a critical conspiratorial moment, he’ll overhear the wrong conversation and our heroes have to decide how far they’ll go to shut him up.
Finding Nemo incorporates this element of the movement of information outside the prisoner’s circle in an alternative way. The spread of information isn’t from the prisoners to the guards, but from the guard to the prisoners. Out in the ocean, as Marlin makes his way to Sydney, the stories of his journey travel in front of him, finally reaching the dentist’s fish tank via the friendly outsider (guard), the pelican Nigel. Once word makes it to the tank that Marlin is on his way, Nemo is spurred to re-attempt the escape plan. He pulls this off all on his own, and the escape is back on.
The Night Before: Let’s go over the plan, one last time. Every conspirator plays a part, and they’d better have it down cold. Depending on how complicated this plan is, we may cut away while the conversation is superimposed on a visual demonstration of what’s supposed to happen. Not that it matters because…
Angel goes back over the plan with the group: everyone will do their part to sully the tank, and Jacques will refrain from his normal modus operandus of cleaning the tank. The day before Darla arrives, the dentist will be forced to take them out to clean the tank, and they can roll themselves out the window down to the ocean and be away.
The Great Escape never goes as planned. Close calls abound, someone chickens out or dies, and the way out, inevitably if improbably, runs right through the big nasty antagonist.
Of course, it doesn’t work. The dentist buys a brand new super powered tank filter that cleans the dirty tank the night before Darla arrives. The escape has failed again.
The group is forced to improvise. Nemo fakes death in the hopes of getting flushed down the toilet. The escape is full of chaos and excitement, misperceptions and near-misses. Darla discovers that Nemo is still alive, and Angel has to throw himself into harm’s way in a last alley oop to get Nemo down a drain.
But what made me really think of Shawshank was a similarity in the films’s scores. After a bare minimum of research, I found that Thomas Newman composed BOTH The Shawshank Redemption and Finding Nemo scores.
First, listen to this track from The Shawshank Redemption, from when Andy escapes and arrives on the other side.
Now listen to this one from the Nemo score, starting at about 50 seconds in. They are remarkably similar.
- Andy “crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side.” Nemo swims through the sewer system to get to the ocean.
- Andy’s planned destination after escape is also the ocean.