Nemo is an only child, born from tragedy to a single father, Merlin. Merlin is protective and is nervous to see him join school with his friends. In defiance of his father, Nemo swims out too far into open water and is caught by a scuba diver. Merlin sets off to rescue him with his hapless, forgetful companion, Dory. Along the way, Merlin overcomes obstacles, Nemo learns how to fend for himself in the world, and, fortunately, Nemo is found.
I recently watched Finding Nemo with my four-year-old son. I was struck by how differently I saw the movie compared to when I first watched it in my early teen years. Back then, it was a light-hearted story of a boy who wants more freedom from his overbearing father. He gets into some trouble but gets out of it with his dad's help. Now it's the story of a father who has to confront his only son's new need for independence, with the backdrop of enormous personal loss. When Nemo is abducted, Merlin will do anything to get him back.
One scene in particular, with commentary from my son, illustrates the difference in how children and parents view this movie.
Merlin and Dory are trapped in a large whale. For Merlin, this is how it ends. He laments that he's failed in his duty to protect his son.
Merlin: I promised him I'd never let anything happen to him.
Dory: Huh. That's a funny thing to promise.
I laughed at Dory's line. Because she's right. There's no way to uphold that promise. Sometimes things happen that can't be helped.
My son's response was the opposite: "No, that's not a funny promise! That's an important thing to promise!"
For a child, their parent is always there to save the day. Nemo is never in any real danger; he's on an interesting adventure, albeit one that's a bit scary. For a parent, Finding Nemo is a harrowing tale of loss and responsibility. Merlin is constantly on the edge of despair as he realizes his promise was hollow. If he loses Nemo he loses everything, and the deck is stacked against him.
I haven't decided yet if I'll promise my son never to let anything happen to him. On one hand, I try to always be truthful with him. I know this is an impossible promise to guarantee, though I'll do everything in my power to keep it. On the other hand, some fictions are useful, if only to reinforce the understanding that his dad is always there for him. Eventually, he'll learn that I'm not superman, but perhaps he doesn't need to know that quite yet.