In the strange case of Finding Nemo, money doesn’t always mean more.
The 2003 film earned $936 million worldwide during its run in 2003, but it took 13 years until a sequel would make its way into theaters. Now, Finding Dory has just blown open the box office with a quick, astounding $186 million worldwide in its opening weekend. So, the question must be asked: Could a third film in the profit-proven Nemo universe be a possibility, now that the undersea world is an undeniable audience-attracting behemoth?
To answer that, you have to take a trip up to Pixar in Emeryville, California, and go inside the long, arduous story-building process that’s come to define the studio and its decisions. Sequels aren’t just borne of broken box offices here. Just ask Nemo, who sat on a mountain of cash for more than a decade.
While today’s Hollywood may greenlight a sequel mere days after a profitable release, the whopping success of Nemo back in 2003 (it was the second highest-grossing film of the year following The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King) didn’t beget an immediate response from the studio. “There was zero discussion of a sequel,” director/writer Andrew Stanton says of the Monday following Nemo‘s release, and, truthfully, the weeks, months, and years following it.
The silence worked for Stanton too, as the director eschewed the possibility of a follow-up to the beloved Pixar original. But it’s almost miraculous that a sequel wasn’t greenlit in the days or decade after Nemo‘s tremendous opening weekend in 2003. Then again, churning out a hastily-crafted film in response to commercial success isn’t exactly the Pixar model. “We’ve never had those kind of discussions here,” says Stanton. “The only time they may have occurred, as far as that typical executive speak of, ‘Oh, we got a hit and we want another one,’ was when there was a lot of battling between Steve [Jobs] and [Michael] Eisner about Toy Story 2 and 3. But prior to that and even post-that, any discussion of sequels has always just been story-based.”
Stanton says it was the grand experiment of Toy Story 2 — the third movie on Pixar’s resume, and a sequel — that taught him and his colleagues the hard lesson about treading carefully with follow-ups (even though the film grossed $485 million worldwide and isn’t considered a misstep by any means). “That was the only time we started for commercial reasons, and almost failed because of it and we took a huge lesson from that,” he says. “We should not approach any movie, no matter whether it comes from a universe pre-existing or if it’s completely original, any differently. It should be inspired by a kernel of an idea for a story that we’re going to want to battle for four years.”
So, Stanton was vocal about staying away from any sort of sequel to Nemo lest the story demanded it — and for a decade, it didn’t. When Stanton rewatched Finding Nemo during the film’s conversion into 3-D in 2010, he stumbled onto a new realization about Dory’s welfare. As a father himself, Stanton found himself wondering whether the forgetful Dory would be okay on her own, should she get separated from her de facto new family of Marlin and Nemo. Surely, a sequel slam dunk, no?
Stanton sat on the kernel for months, sharing it only with a few key people at Pixar, still hesitant to shout it from the rooftops that, finally, a story had been hatched for a sequel, and Nemo could finally join other Pixar franchises like Toy Story, Cars, and Monsters Inc. “I knew nobody was going to argue with making a sequel, and I was actually more of the opposite — I was very paranoid, like, ‘We’re not going to say the words ‘Finding anything’ out loud to anybody, including in-house,” he says. “I just knew the minute those words came out of my mouth, I’d never be able… the horse would be out of the barn, and we’d never be able to put it back in.”
As evidenced by Dory winning praise from critics and dollars from ticket buyers, that proved to be a smart decision. But the success of Dory in 2016 demands a different response than the one afforded Nemo in 2003: Could audiences expect to see a third Nemo narrative sooner than later? Or is the Nemo world closed once more for another decade, box office performance be damned?
“I really do feel like this was the missing piece, emotionally, for the first movie,” Stanton tells EW of Finding Nemo 3 possibilities. “Now, I’ve stopped saying never for anything because there are a lot of new characters that get introduced and we’ve broadened the universe for this movie. And again, I’m very used to seeing that world continue to open up from the Toy Story movies… so I’ve learned to just say, to my knowledge, I think everything that was born of the first movie is wrapped up. But we’ll see.”
Stanton continues, “With any of the other sequels, we strive to try and make it seem like it was inevitable, like it was meant to be, that all these extended stories and journeys with these characters were part of the whole canon. And that’s really hard, but it’s so satisfying for me when I’m experiencing that, whether it’s a great second season of a TV show or another book in a series. It’s a small club when it’s done successfully. Regardless of how much people may vocalize that they don’t enjoy or wish that there weren’t extensions, sometimes it’s really nice to go back and spend more time with these characters if they evolve, if they grow, if they expand. So that, I’m very happy with. I feel like it was just as hard, if not harder, on [Finding Dory] to get it to feel inevitable and preordained, and that it was always of the larger piece.”