Why do we never talk about how great the villains in Pixar movies are?
From Sid in Toy Story to Randall in Monsters, Inc., the cold and analytical autopilot in WALL-E to Antoine Ego in Ratatouille, Pixar’s filmography is filled with memorable and compelling antagonists. One of the exceptions to the rule is Finding Nemo, the story of every parent’s worst nightmare retold with a cast of colourful fish. Finding Nemo doesn’t really feature a central antagonist to challenge our heroes’ views or teach them life lessons. The only thing standing between Marlin and his son is an ocean fraught with peril at every turn. And right out of the gate, Marlin and Dory are faced with a whopper: a great white shark by the name of Bruce.
Not only is this a fun little Easter egg for movie lovers (Bruce was the nickname for the mechanical shark used by Steven Spielberg on the set of Jaws), but an ingenious bit of casting. The voice behind those razor-sharp pearly whites is Australian actor Barry Humphries, more popularly known to audiences worldwide by his alter-ego, Dame Edna Everage. Humphries has played villains before – his unhinged turn as a ‘blind’ gameshow host in Shock Treatment, the obscure sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, makes that movie worth watching all on its own. But here he’s almost unrecognisable. His voice is lowered to a growl that’s constantly at odds with his chummy Australian accent, right from his opening line: a long, drawn-out “Helloooooo” that oozes menace and charm in equal measure.
Marlin and Dory are powerless to resist as Bruce insists they accompany him to a little “get-together” at his place. Home, it turns out, is the rusted wreck of a submarine, surrounded by a field of unexploded sea mines. And as two of Bruce’s mates – a pair of sharks named Anchor and Chum – emerge from the shadows, it seems that Marlin’s search for his son might be over before it starts… until, that is, the meeting begins. It turns out that Bruce and his mates are repentant sharks, who have formed AA-style meetings to help each other get over their urge to kill fellow sea-creatures. They even have a pledge they recite at the start of each session: “I am a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine. If I am to change this image, I must first change myself. Fish are friends, not food.”
It’s such a perfectly executed bait and switch that for a moment we’re left feeling as baffled as poor Marlin. But of course, things don’t stay peachy for long. Dory ends up injured, which gives Bruce a taste of blood – and sends him falling right off the wagon. If Bruce was chilling before, then the sight of him giving in to his urges, as his pupils dilate so far they become completely black, is downright terrifying. What follows is an intense chase through the bowels of the submarine. There are jump-scares, narrow escapes and even a fleeting reference to The Shining (imagine how much creepier Jack Torrance would have been with an Aussie twang to his voice). Eventually our heroes escape by setting off Chekhov’s sea mines, and Bruce comes to his senses just long enough to see his hard work (literally) blow up in his face.
Marlin and Dory face many more dangers in Finding Nemo; including anglerfish, overly possessive seagulls, and an eight-year-old with a long history of accidentally killing her pets. But none of them – nor any other Pixar villains – are quite as terrifying as Bruce. Not bad for an 84-year-old Dame.