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Science and storytelling in Finding Nemo and Finding Dory

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 16, 2016

Adam Summers is a biomechanist who worked as a consultant on fish behavior and anatomy for Pixar’s Finding Nemo and its sequel, Finding Dory. How do you figure out where and how to stick to the known science (or sneak it in sideways) in a movie about talking fish? It’s not an easy question to answer.

This question is very important for the entertainment industry: does it matter whether you’re right, when you’re telling a story to entertain? Under some circumstances, I don’t think it matters. But with an animated movie about real, living systems, when you use the truth — their complexity and beauty — as a springboard for the story, you add a level of gravitas that is vitally important to creating a broad and deep appeal. A young audience is much more sophisticated than you think, and a story informed by a lot of facts alerts them to the presence of real concepts. I got an e-mail from an eight-year-old about Finding Nemo, explaining that characters could not emerge from a whale’s blowhole if they were in its mouth, because there is no link between the trachea and the oesophagus.

There are over 100 inaccuracies in Finding Nemo, but Summers says only one is a genuine error. (He doesn’t name it, but it might be Mr. Ray, who lists names of classes in his song about aquatic species.) Everything else, from the whale’s blowhole to ignoring clownfish’s ability to switch between male and female (although what if Marlin does become female, but just never spawns again?) is an intentional gloss or omission for storytelling purposes.

Or aesthetic ones. “The claspers — external, stick-like sexual organs on sharks — were cut off Bruce the great white shark,” says Summers, “not because of family values, but because he’s spherical, and when you add a bunch of sticks to spherical sharks, they look really stupid.” Noted.

Summers admits there’s also just a lot about the species in Pixar’s fish movies that nobody really knows.

They did ask me some questions about the biology of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) that we just don’t know the answers to. It’s the largest fish in the sea, yet I think there’s just one record of a pregnant female, which revealed that they can have more than 300 pups at a time. That’s not much to know about the reproductive biology of such an iconic fish.
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