Why Are Finding Nemo and Finding Dory Such Enormous Hits?

Photo: Pixar

When it comes to box-office records, Finding Dory has redefined how high an animated film can go. Its $136.1 million opening-weekend gross was an all-time animated record, and the film easily breezed past $300 million two days ago, a benchmark Dory hit in just 11 days. (It took former record-holders Shrek 2 and Toy Story 3 seven days longer to reach that milestone.) At this pace, Dory is likely to finish its domestic run as Pixar’s biggest-ever grosser and perhaps even the highest-grossing animated film of all time, and that’s awfully fitting given that its predecessor, 2003’s Finding Nemo, also spent several years as Pixar’s most successful film.

But what is it about these movies in particular that makes them such box-office behemoths? With Pixar films quality is a given, but the continued adventures of Dory, Marlin, and Nemo trump even the studio’s critically acclaimed Toy Story series. To figure out the franchise’s magic formula, we recently sat down with director Andrew Stanton (who helmed both Nemo and Dory, as well as Pixar’s Wall-E) and producer Lindsey Collins to get their takes.

Good timing

Ask Stanton for his gut read on how Finding Nemo became such a big hit, and he’ll modestly credit the two Pixar movies that came before it, Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc. “There’s no way to prove this, but I remember watching the same thing kind of happen from The Little Mermaid to Beauty and the Beast to Aladdin to The Lion King: They kept getting bigger in their receptions,” said Stanton. “I think there was a wave effect, where people said, ‘I loved that one, so I trust that I can go to the next one,’ and it compounded. So I think with Finding Nemo, we were the beneficiaries of a nice run.”

“We had a similar creative wave for Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up,” added Collins. “That also feels like a phase at Pixar.” And though Pixar's recent, mild The Good Dinosaur was an aberration, the two other films released before Finding Dory back up their momentum theory: 2013's Monsters University became Pixar's biggest-ever sequel outside the Toy Story franchise, while last year's Oscar-winning Inside Out was one of the studio's most acclaimed films, and is Pixar's second-biggest movie after Toy Story 3.

Strong female appeal

Disney animated films have often leaned heavily on their princesses, but aside from a foray into royalty with Brave, Pixar has gone a different route. With Dory in Finding Nemo, Stanton presented a female co-lead with a sense of humor, who gets to make the movie’s best jokes and at no point is forced into romance. Dory struck a chord with female audiences, especially, who bought an outsized portion of Finding Nemo’s tickets.

“It had what I call the Titanic effect, where girls keep going again and again,” said Stanton. “It’s funny, because when that happens, you get a bigger multiplier because the boys will go with the girls much more readily than the girls will go with the boys to whatever they’re running to again and again.”

And yet, films aimed at girls seem to be the exception, rather than the rule. “Isn’t that ironic?” said Stanton. “Because if you’re smart, and you’re going for the big bucks, that’s what you should be doing.”

The resurrection of Ellen DeGeneres

Stanton is quick to point out that though Pixar has often cast big stars, fame is not the studio’s primary consideration. “Even at the time that we cast Tom Hanks and Tim Allen for Toy Story in 1992, Tom had yet to do Forrest Gump and Sleepless in Seattle and Apollo 13,” he said. “We’ve always cast for what their voice brings to the table, isolated in and of itself. Twenty years from now, people aren’t going to know how famous people were then. I don’t know half the cast when I watch older Disney movies, but those voices are those characters, and they work.”

Still, DeGeneres as Dory may be the studio’s most perfect match of star and character, and the success of Finding Nemo is inextricably linked to DeGeneres’s career comeback. Stanton cast the comedian as Dory in 2000, two years after her eponymous ABC sitcom had been canceled. “She was in the shadows,” said Stanton, who wasn’t dissuaded by DeGeneres’s absence from the spotlight three years after coming out as a lesbian. He believed in his star’s talent, a bet that paid dividends for both the director and DeGeneres: Months after Finding Nemo became a hit in the summer of 2003 and reintroduced DeGeneres to a massive mainstream audience, her daytime talk show The Ellen DeGeneres Show began its juggernaut run that fall. Its debut couldn’t have been better timed to take advantage of DeGeneres’s renewed profile, and 13 years later, the show has made her one of the most successful people in show business. “Dory really helped her with that launch,” said Stanton. “She said as much to me when the first movie came out. I felt very privileged.”

The characters just click

Then again, maybe the success of this franchise can be chalked up to something awfully simple: Audiences love these characters and want to see more of them. Stanton said that was his primary motivation for revisiting this world: “It was simply because I watched Finding Nemo and worried about Dory after it was over,” he said. “From a writing standpoint, I thought, ‘She’s completely unresolved under the hood, and she could easily just lose Marlin and Nemo in the next scene and be back to the way she was.’ I’d like to think I’m a little bit wiser as a writer and I would recognize and resolve that now in the first movie, but it bothered me.”

Taking a second swing at Dory, then, let Stanton put his fish in a better place, and relieve some of his own anxiety as a filmmaker. “You create these characters that become real to you,” he said. “You end up caring about their well-being. It’s like being a parent: I have memories of her as a baby. I mean, I remember when I thought her up, her character. I had this little idea, alone in my office, of a fish with short-term memory loss. To jump ahead …”

Stanton drifted off, unable to find the words, and his producer jumped in to explain. “We were watching one of the scoring sessions,” said Collins, “and it was the scene where Marlin says thank you to Dory, finally. It’s one of the few times in the movie where you hear the theme from Finding Nemo — the rest of the score is new. Andrew said that watching her in this scene, 13 years later, it all hit him. I asked him what he was feeling, and he said, ‘I’m just so proud of her.’”