Animated characters come to life have virtually dominated the big screen this summer, from X-Men 2 to Finding Nemo to The Hulk. X-Men and The Hulk are geared toward an adolescent audience, while Finding Nemo is the children’s movie of the summer. But The Hulk and Finding Nemo share a common plot structure that confronts viewers with our fears of government and the social order through the representation of a dysfunctional family structure. Don’t see it? A quick plot recap might be in order.
In The Hulk, a fairly ordinary, happily married couple, just beginning to rear children, meets with tragedy as the mother dies a violent death, leaving both father and son emotionally scarred. Father and son suffer further emotional wounds as they are forced apart. The film represents the emotional and physical destruction of the family by the loss of the mother. The son, in addition to his emotional disability, also has a physical abnormality that causes him to turn into a large, green, unthinking, and virtually indestructible monster. Only the restoration of the female—in this case Betty Ross, played by Jennifer Connelly—can calm the Hulk’s rage and, presumably, bring emotional healing as well.
Now for the children’s movie, Finding Nemo: A fairly ordinary, happily married clownfish couple, just beginning to rear children, meets with tragedy as the mother dies a violent death, leaving both father and son emotionally scarred. Father and son suffer further emotional wounds as they are forced apart. The film represents the emotional and physical destruction of the family in the loss of the mother. The son, in addition to his emotional disability, has a physical abnormality too. In Nemo’s case, it’s a malformed fin. Only the restoration of the female—in this case Dory the bluefish—can bring father and son together and, presumably, bring emotional healing as well.
Rage, rage against the dying of your mom.
It looks like little-finned Nemo is a small orange version of the big bad green Hulk. Both characters’ physical abnormalities are analogs for an emotional problem, but these films express more than just adolescent fantasies of rage in the face of powerlessness. The Hulk is the projected rage, not of Bruce Banner, but of David Banner. It is the father’s failure and anger that is expressed through the son. And while Nemo struggles with powerlessness, it is an emotion projected onto him by a father who was unable to save his wife and children from a barracuda. Nemo, like the Hulk, escapes his father’s projected identity by escaping his father.
So what’s up with these fathers? Both fathers were willing to sacrifice their children for the sake of the mother, forfeiting their responsibility to their children not to save her but to keep her for themselves. Nemo’s mother died fighting to protect her eggs from the barracuda, while his father was willing to sacrifice them, wanting the mother to hide with him in the shelter of their anemone. When David’s father realized he wouldn’t be able to cure David of his genetic anomaly, he decided to end David’s life, accidentally killing David’s mother as she tried to protect him.
The father/son relationships in both movies thus revolve around a cycle of loss, resentment, and rage. The fathers’ fears and emptiness are the driving force of both films. The father wants to preserve and protect his source of pleasure, the mother, and is willing to sacrifice his children to do so. The mother, on the contrary, desires to keep her children safe at any cost. This could be understood in terms of a standard Freudian family drama, but these films go beyond commentary on the state of the family.
The Hulk is, ultimately, the end result of a government project gone bad. His two chief nemeses are an Army general and a military contractor, the first seeking to contain him and the second to market him. David Banner is intimately connected with each of them: the General is his girlfriend’s father, the contractor her ex-boyfriend. Government is therefore David Banner’s real rival and the real threat to his happiness.
Nemo is also a victim of human society, stuck in an aquarium and intended to be a gift for the dentist’s niece. Like the Hulk, he too is reduced to a medium of exchange. Rather than representations of the Freudian family drama, these films are commentaries on the relationship between authority in America and its subjects, a representation of the effect of a capitalist empire on a populace growing ever more fearful of its own power.
Both children are sacrificed to market forces, while both fathers serve as a trope for organized authority in America, the Hulk sacrificed to America’s military-industrial complex and Nemo more basically to the free market. As government grows more powerful the governed feel more and more powerless, even to the point of imaginatively projecting our powerlessness as an abnormality or a disability, rage and escape being our dominant emotional tenors.
The Finding Hulko films, then, are the revenge of disabled children on their fearful parents, and, by extension, the fantastic revenge of the governed on an elected government they now find abusive. Their green and orange are secondary colors to the flag’s primary colors of red (white) and blue. Betty Ross seems to be the Betsy Ross that our heroes hope will sew a new flag for our foundering republic.
The Hulk offers the slimmest pretext of a resolution as David Banner finds a “happy thought” about his father. Maybe with just a little pixie dust he could fly! Finding Nemo seems to offer a more tenable solution. The father, it seems, just needs to grow a sense of humor . . .