Finding family: What film can teach about why families are 'worth fighting for'

Posted June 20

In an effort to rise above the limitations of his abnormally short fin, the clownfish Nemo ventures too far from home and gets separated from his father. The Pixar film “Finding Nemo” portrays the cross-sea journey of Nemo’s father and his attempt to reunite with his son. But the finding of Nemo extends far beyond the physical journey, according to Sarah Coyne, associate professor of human development at Brigham Young University.

“(The film) is not as much (about) physically finding Nemo as it is accepting him and loving him for his weaknesses and loving the core of who Nemo is,” Coyne said.

Coyne values “Finding Nemo” because it emphasizes the importance of family as well as the positive influence a family can have in an individual’s life.

“We all have a fundamental need to belong, and families are one way to fulfill that need,” she added.

The story of Nemo continues 13 years later with this week's release of “Finding Dory.” According to Coyne and Dawn O. Braithwaite, the chair of communication studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, movies such as “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory” are part of a large repertoire of films that touch on the subject of finding and discovering families. Other films they mentioned include “Tarzan,” “Lilo and Stitch” and “Annie.” The professors discussed why this subject is often featured in film and the important message about families such films have to offer.

One reason the subject of families is often revisited in films is because the family “is the most significant and profound human system in life,” Braithwaite said.

For many people, Braithwaite said, their longest and most valuable social relationships will be with siblings or other family members. However, a problem several films touch on is the fact that sometimes a person’s “family of origin” may no longer exist or be available, she said. In this case, what Braithwaite called “voluntary families” can be formed and established.

“(Many films express) that families are important to us but that we can also have families in alternative ways,” she said. “You can have a sense of family with people or even creatures that are different than you. They may not be related to you by biology or tied together by law, but instead, these relations are formed through ties of affection. You see that played out in films a lot.”

The Disney film “Tarzan” is an example of how people can establish or make families in different ways. Coyne said she has always appreciated that film for how it expands the notion of what constitutes a family. Physically, Tarzan does not fit in with a family of gorillas. But despite this seemingly big difference, he is still able to develop his own identity, truly discover himself and find his place within the family, Coyne said.

Another film Coyne mentioned was “Lilo and Stitch.” When Lilo adopts the unruly alien Stitch as her pet and brings him home, things get out of hand and Lilo’s older sister demands that Stitch be returned to the animal shelter. But then Lilo utters words that change her sister’s mind: “Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.”

“This speaks to something core about each one of us,” Coyne said. “We all want somewhere to belong, and we don't want to be forgotten.”

Braithwaite said that by featuring interspecies relationships, films such as “Tarzan” and “Lilo and Stitch” can more clearly make the point that “we don’t have to have blood or law in common with somebody to be family to them or to have them be family to us.”

She added that these films are important because they confront the major fear of being left alone or without family. She pointed to the film “Annie” as another great example of this with its representation of the “classic adoption story.”

Braithwaite said a common theme in all of these films is that negative or unexpected events can happen to a family, leading to separation and uncertainty; however, such films typically include a happy development where characters are able to either reunite with their loved ones or, in the case of death or rejection, find family in other ways.

“If you don’t have a biological or a legal family that meets your needs, you can make family,” Braithwaite said. “These movies tell us that you can do it — that you can have family in your life and it can take different forms. I think that’s a valuable message.”

“There’s no ‘one size fits all’ for a family,” Coyne added. “But the presiding theme in all of these films is that families are important. That’s the big message: Families are important, and they’re worth fighting for.”

Email: lpeterson@deseretnews.com


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