The story of a Clownfish named Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) searching for his son Nemo (Alexander Gould) has a number of memorable moments: the friendship between Marlin and Dory (Ellen Degeneres); the vegetarian sharks; and thrill-seeker Crush (Andrew Stanton) to name a few.
The film’s first scene, however, is a sombre affair, as Marlin witnesses the loss of his partner Coral (Elizabeth Perkins). As well as drawing in audiences, the scene establishes a tone for Pixar that would have a similar effect to the death of Bambi’s mother decades before.
The opening moments sees Marlin and Coral watching over their eggs, anticipating a future as parents. This bliss is interrupted by a barracuda, who looks to hunt the brood. Coral sacrifices herself, while Marlin is knocked unconscious.
When Marlin awakes, it’s clear Coral has been eaten, along with every egg except for one: Nemo. It’s a rough opening for the film, and while Coral’s death is not literally shown on-screen like Mufasa (James Earl Jones) in The Lion King, it’s made clear she and her young are dead.
Watch the scene below
Its significance in Pixar’s greater history is clear when you look at the context of the time. Up to that point, there seemed to be strict rules around death in the movies of Pixar’s parent company, Disney.
It usually happened to villains, and in such a way as it mainly happened off screen (often-used methods were falling from a cliff, like Snow White’s Evil Queen; or turning into a monster that is then slain, like Maleficent or Ursula. Bambi and The Lion King were the only major examples of ‘good’ characters dying.
They were held up for generations as the major examples of traumatising cinema moments, a rare blast of cruel reality in Disney’s fantasy world.
Even with all its innovations in storytelling, Pixar had yet to deviate from those rules in their initial four movies. In the first two Toy Story movies, being given away or forgotten was seen as the great peril for Buzz and Woody, without bringing the concept of death into it. A Bug’s Life featured villain Hopper (Kevin Spacey) being eaten by birds, while the villain in Monsters Inc, Henry J Waternoose (James Coburn), is arrested.
The death of Coral is the first real gut-punch death of Pixar’s filmography, happening senselessly to a character who didn’t ‘deserve’ it. Unlike The Lion King, it was not done to set up a vengeance storyline, but it did have a purpose. It gave Marlin a reason to fear the world, and be so protective of Nemo.
His partner had been taken away from him, and very nearly his only child, establishing a grief and trauma that was one of the earliest examples of Pixar’s ability to weave heavy topics into a family-friendly context.
In the following years, death would become a much more fluid subject for Pixar movies. The Incredibles would use it for comedy (the hilarious “No Capes!” montage showing a number of heroes meeting their doom); Toy Story 3 nudged at the concept of accepting your fate in the heart-wrenching furnace scene (although Woody and friends would survive); and in Soul the idea of death itself became the storyline.
Of course, the first movie most think of when the words “Pixar death” are mentioned is Up. Like Finding Nemo, the opening sequence shows the death of a loved one, albeit with much more context than Coral.
The ten-minute sequence, showing Ellie and Carl building a home together, losing a child, and then being parted by death, is the most touching in movie history (live-action or animated). Both films paved the way for moments like Bing Bong’s (Richard Kind) death in Inside Out, or the fading of Chicharrón (Edward James Olmos) in Coco.
Moments where something was sacrificed, and as sad as it was, those who survived found a way to keep going. They are part of the legacy of a Pixar movie, where younger viewers can be taught lessons about things like death without being traumatised, while their accompanying adults quietly fight back a tear or two.
Twenty years on, Finding Nemo holds its place in history because of what it brought to animated films, and the concept of a Pixar movie specifically. Inspired by what came before, it refined a storytelling technique that makes family movies in particular so appealing: the ability to break our hearts, before putting them back together again.
Finding Nemo is streaming on Disney+.