I love watching animated movies, largely because the jokes are often aimed at adults (the idea evidently that grown-ups should enjoy the movies as much as children). I am naturally skeptical of the example set by heroes (main characters) in such movies but will ignore this internal conflict in favor of their entertainment value. However there is one character that has me sufficiently conflicted to seek advice: Dory in the movie Finding Nemo.

The movie follows the adventures of Marlin - a clownfish - as he attempts to find his son Nemo, who has been captured for the pet trade. Along the way he teams up with another fish, Dory. Dory is a friendly, enthusiastic, innocent character. She plays a central role in the movie by providing moral support as sidekick to Marlin, Nemo's dad.

Dory suffers from recurrent amnesia. I am not sure what her condition would be called in the case of a person, but she cannot remember beyond what has happened a few minutes earlier. This is of course sad and frustrating, and I have difficulty understanding the humor in it, but the makers of the movie decided to proceed with this character and even made a follow-up movie focused on her (a movie I happened to find painful to watch). Many situations in the movie play off Dory's lackadaisical view of life against Marlin's earnest life-or-death concern for recovering his son (no doubt many movie tropes are exploited here).

In my opinion Dory is a deeply challenging* character to put into perspective for children because her behavior is "child-like" while she is presumably "an adult". In addition she inhabits an environment with a distant resemblance to the "real world" - the fish go to school and have parents, there are different "neighborhoods" and many hazards and dangerous characters - but a person with memory issues like Dory would likely required continuous assistance. Dory's memory problems mean she doesn't remember who Marlin is half the time, meaning she forgets the very serious purpose of their adventure, and she often leads them into dangerous situations. Curiously, and despite her recklessness, other characters in the movie tend to like her over Marlin, and remark that Marlin should "relax". Dory does not seem a good role model, even if something might be learned from her character and the movie.

I am wondering (1) whether a character like Dory can be presented to children as a "role model" (and how one might do so) and more generally (2) how to put the characters (particularly Dory and Marlin) into perspective for children.

I found this post useful but I am particularly interested in the character Dory, how kids might perceive her, whether my concerns are absurd, etc. Note this was not particularly helpful wrt Dory. I am guessing Disney had this movie vetted by professional psychologists, providing input on the appropriateness of the character. Perhaps the marketers trump the psychologists in reality but I'd be surprised if Disney management does not put great effort to screen content. So it's all tied together somehow, since including such a character seems to imply that children would derive some value from seeing them (as determined by psychologists). And the medium (movie, book etc) is of secondary importance. What concerns me is the character.

  • (I edited out an earlier description as "flawed")
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    For your first (and maybe most important) question, "what the intended message might be with inclusion of the character [Dory]", Movies & TV.SE might be a better option, as this kind of question is accepted there. Once you understand the reason for Dory , a question about appropriateness is opinion only, but the question on how to put the characters into perspective for children might be a good one here. As it is, I think this is too broad (asking too many questions.) – anongoodnurse May 25 at 11:05
  • I think you're very likely correct about psychologists vetting plot lines. But Disney is out to entertain first and foremost; that's how they make money. The question(s) you ask is already generating a lot of discussion in comments. Unfortunately, discussions are not SE's forté; answers are. (It's a q&a site.) Discussions mostly belong in chat. However, you're getting answers, so that's good. – anongoodnurse May 25 at 13:19

In my opinion Dory is a deeply flawed character. I don't think she is a good role model at all for children, even if something might be learned from the movie.

This is not Dory's story. It's not even Nemo's story. It's Marlin's story. This is important, because Dory's function in the narrative exists precisely because she is a counterweight to Marlin.

The story is not pro-Dory. It is anti-old-Marlin, and it is using Dory's character as a foil to highlight Marlin's deep character flaws. That is not to say that Dory has no character flaws either, but the movie dedicates more time on the things Dory gets right and Marlin gets wrong, because it's about Marlin's arc and how he thinks he's right but is oblivious to his own mistakes.

Dory's memory problems mean she doesn't remember who Marlin is half the time, meaning she forgets the very serious purpose of their adventure, and she often leads them into dangerous situations.

And yet, despite of all her flaws, she balances Marlin's biggest character flaw: paralyzing fear. This isn't a matter of responsible versus reckless. This is a matter of optimism versus pessismism.

Marlin is a well-intentioned but emotionally damaged parent who is projecting his fears onto his child, to the point of stifling Nemo's personal growth. He is archetypically helicopter parenting and micromanaging Nemo, being too busy with his own worry about what might go wrong, that he absolutely dismisses the possibility that something might ever go right.

Dory, by herself, isn't a healthy middle ground either, but she is similarly extreme to Marlin, simply in the opposite direction. She always assumes a positive outcome, even in the face of many red flags that would suggest otherwise.

The vegetarian sharks are a great example of this. Everything about this situation suggests that it's deadly to go near them, but Dory doesn't acknowledge "common sense" and instead deals with what is in front of her. She doesn't judge the sharks unless they give her reason to.
As it turns out, she ends up making friends with a pair of sharks who very much deserve to not be ostracized by other fish, due to their principled desire to go against their very nature and not eat other fish. Marlin would've wrongly ostracized these sharks and would never have given them a chance, or even considered that they may not fit with Marlin's stereotypical views of a shark.

The minefield of jellyfish is another example, at least how they got out of it. Marlin was overcome with analysis paralysis because of his fear of dying or getting hurt. But this would've led to him never escaping.
Dory, on the other hand, while not fully acknowledging the mortal danger either, was able to take action and save the both of them (to Marlin's credit, he also took action after he saw her do it)

Marlin has lost all joy in his life. Dory represents and overabundance of joy and positivity. Neither of them is individually balanced. Marlin is unable to enjoy life or Nemo, Dory is incapable of assessing everyday risks. They need eachother to balance themselves.

If you want another movie analogy, Finding Nemo is like the movie Inside Out, if the protagonist had been Sadness instead of Joy. Rather than living with positivity and learning to accept sadness, which is Joy's story, Marlin's story is about living with sadness and learning to find joy.

If you're looking for a character who is not flawed (as shown by the movie), you have to consider Crush, the turtle:

enter image description here

He is kind, compassionate, patient, and is shown to have a really good idea on how to balance both keeping your children safe but not refusing to let them grow up or live their life. The movie explicitly shows Crush' children leading happy lives, in the same way that Nemo very much tried to in the beginning, only to have Marlin hold him back from his first day of school.

Marlin needed to learn to not hold everyone else back because of his own fears. This movie was a two step learning process for Marlin.

First, Dory taught him to be happy and playful as an individual. He was still an overconcerned parent, but due to Nemo not being around, Marlin eventually became playful with Dory (right after the jellyfish, if I remember correctly).

Secondly, Crush taught Marlin to be happy and playful as a parent. Parenting takes more work than managing your own emotional state, and it comes with some additional worries, but Marlin needed to learn to not hold Nemo (or himself) back because of him needing to be a parent.

In a way, Dory represents Nemo, but without the parental context which allows Marlin to claim authority. Instead, he has to treat Dory as an equal, which makes him incapable of not listening to her, which in turn forces him to understand an opinion that is not his own.
Marlin never heard Nemo's cry for joy, but he's unable to drown out Dory's infinite well of optimism and playfulness and eventually both acknowledges it and starts engaging with it.

Much like how Nemo has a simile in Dory, Marlin has a simile in Gill:

enter image description here

Similarly as my point before, Gill represents a non-fatherly Marlin, giving Nemo the chance to understand how emotional damage changes people, without the parental context of having to almost blindly obey Marlin as he is his father.

Gill's flaws are similar to Marlin, but they are more visible. He is physically scarred. He lives his life in service of the grudge that scarred him. He is most definitely not emotionally balanced, but he's also not a bad person. He's just broken and trying to get by.

However, contrary to Marlin, Gill never surrenders, even though his surroundings give him every indication that he should. Additionally, he elaborates on his (flawed) positions and reveals his reasoning, which allows Nemo to understand where he is coming from. Comparatively, Nemo never got to understand his father's emotional state because Marlin never acknowledged it himself or even let it be up for discussion.

However, I'm being slightly unfair here. Old Marlin did initially surrender, succumbing to his fears and living life the way he did. But he did not give up on finding Nemo. It's the one thing that incentivized him enough to reassess who he is as a person and who he needs to be in order to find Nemo again.

Dory acts as a guide on that path. Marlin needed her, but he needed to work with her, which forced him to allow her to be who she is. Which, by the magic of narrative analogies, is precisely the lesson he needed to learn about how he should parent Nemo.

In my opinion, this movie is a stellar example of how emotional damage can turn someone to act against their loved one's best interest, but for understandable and human reasons, not selfishness or pure evil.

To Nemo, in the opening scenes, Marlin was the villain. But the movie didn't paint Marlin as irredeemable. It actually revolved around disassembling Marlin's emotional state, and rewinding him back to a happier version of himself, and getting him to open up to the world again.

That doesn't take away that his wife was killed. It doesn't change Dory's life-altering affliction. It doesn't change Nemo's malformed flipper. And yet, he learns to life live inspite of the mishaps, as opposed to avoiding it.

That is the power of Dory's character, and how she should be valued.

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    Great analysis, thanks for the insight. The two answers show I have to watch the movie again more carefully! It's easy to miss the forest for the trees! It's hard to say which of the answers is better, but I like the thoroughness with which you deconstructed the characters and especially the comparison between Dory and Nemo. This is what my hangup was about, that she behaves as a reckless child, but that is of course the point, it makes sense. – Buck Thorn May 27 at 15:13

All the main characters are flawed somehow, as with most movies. The question is, how do they overcome their flaws? Children are supposed to observe what should be emulated and what should not based on how things turn out.

Marlin and Dory are counterparts. Their flaws balance out. Marlin represents total seriousness and drive, so committed to his mission of finding Nemo that he actually overlooks his friends — he doesn't realize how much he needs to get along with those who are beside him. He gets mad at Dory for things she can't help and he even endangers her life at the jellyfish part. Only by the end does he realize the importance of being "there" for those around you. He needs Dory to show him this by her dependence on him to remember anything.

Dory represents the opposite: carelessness. She is forgetful even of the most important things, even the mission she's on. Yes, she comes across as fun and relaxed because of this — why not just keep swimming when you don't know what danger is ahead? But the key thing is we see that when it matters, this is a real problem for her. And she knows it. She wants to be able to remember what's important. By the end, she's finally able to do so because she finds people who care for her and give her a sense of purpose.

The two together also represent the two sides of Nemo in his aquarium. Like Marlin, he can dream of the ocean and have the drive to escape, but be closed off from the chance to make friends there. Or like Dory, he can shrug, forget the place he was meant to be, and enjoy a rather limited life. He wavers between the two, and ultimately finds a balance (his new friends help him achieve his goal).

So this is the lesson I think Dory teaches. Any kid can recognize that while Dory is carefree and enjoys the small things more than Marlin, she needs to keep her mind on what's important, both for her sake and for others'. And she does that by finding her community and sticking with them.

Also, she represents a person with a disability, which is always good to learn how to be around and respect. (I don't think it does an amazing job of showing this last part, but at least it's some exposure. A kid might recognize this in a friend and feel empathy.)

  • Thanks, I like your pov. I think I'll have to watch the movie again, though. There is a scene where they are eaten by a whale and Dory tells Marlin to "trust" her and let himself drop into an abyss (the whale's throat). There is absolutely no way I would recommend to anyone to listen to Dory :) and asked the children whether they would trust Dory. – Buck Thorn May 25 at 11:32
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    @BuckThorn That scene you describe also shows this same juxtaposition with Marlin and Dory. Marlin is so risk-averse and scared that he gets into a state of effective paralysis (can't get out on his own, won't take any kind of risk without being absolutely sure of the consequences, won't trust people, etc.). Dory is the opposite by being willing to do things without knowing the consequences / even thinking about them at all. The whale scene has an important part where Marlin and Dory are arguing about what to do. – Becuzz May 25 at 11:47
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    @BuckThorn Marlin is terrified to do what Dory asks and says something like "How do you know what'll happen?" and Dory responds "I don't know" with a little bit of worry on her face. It shows growth in both characters. Marlin, faced with an impossible situation, is forced to trust Dory and take a chance for once in his life. Dory seems to realize a little that her actions have consequences, potentially dire ones. It's a big step in each character's arc. – Becuzz May 25 at 11:47
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    "...she represents a person with a disability, which is always good to learn how to be around..." This is a great takeaway, really, and one no one can make a good argument against. +1 for this answer. – anongoodnurse May 25 at 13:20
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    @BuckThorn Yup, I think that's a great teachable moment to pause and say: "Who was right? Marlin with his cautiousness, or Dory with her carelessness? What would you do?" and talk about how to make such decisions, comparing them to real-life situations. One day you'll give your kid the responsibility to walk home from school or pick something up for you from the store. If they get lost and need to ask for directions, what should they do? How can they tell who's safe to ask? Go into a store and find an employee, or go with friends in the open if you're going to ask a stranger like Dory did...! – Luke Sawczak May 25 at 14:55

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