Dory from ‘Finding Nemo’ was almost a male fish — then Ellen DeGeneres arrived

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The prequel to “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory” should be called “Finding Ellen DeGeneres.”

In conversation Thursday with film critic Justin Chang, “Finding Nemo” mastermind Andrew Stanton revealed that the franchise’s beloved blue tang with short-term memory loss was almost a male fish — until he discovered DeGeneres.

Chang had a virtual sit-down with the writer-director as part of The Times’ #UltimateSummerMovieShowdown, which saw “Finding Nemo” claim the Week 5 crown over 15 other blockbuster contenders including “Big,” “Poltergeist,” “Sister Act,” “Wonder Woman,” fellow Pixar phenom “Up” and runner-up “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”

“To be honest, I had this really dumb, male, naive view that the guide that should take the father through should be a male fish,” Stanton told Chang. “And it just didn’t work for about six months to a year.”

Enter DeGeneres surfaced on Stanton’s radar while his wife was watching the veteran comedian on TV.

“I heard (DeGeneres) change the sentence — the subject of a sentence — five times before she got from beginning to the end,” Stanton said. “And a light bulb went off that was an appealing, progressive way to be able to do short-term memory that wouldn’t get old really quick.

“And then I couldn’t get her … voice out of my head, and suddenly all the writer’s block I had just unloaded. And then I started to think, ‘Well, why not? Why can’t it be a female? And why can’t it be a platonic relationship?”

The 2003 fish film follows a sprightly Dory and an uptight clownfish named Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) as they “just keep swimming” through the ocean on a desperate mission to locate the latter’s missing son, Nemo. As Chang previously noted, “Marlin may fail in the dad-joke department, but he is nevertheless the ultimate helicopter parent. As such, he’s pretty obnoxious a lot of the time — but also more relatable than I care to admit.”

For Stanton, that layered father-son relationship was “the last jigsaw puzzle piece that really put it all together.”

“I was at this place where I was a father of a newborn, but my dad was still very much alive and very healthy. And I felt like I was in the middle of a telescope,” Stanton said. “I could see back in time, as equally as I could see forward in time, to being a son and a father. … That’s always the best place to be as a writer. … You almost are compelled to try to express this thing you’re going through.”

With Nemo on a separate path throughout most of the film, Stanton described the innocent and childlike Dory as the “surrogate child” who forces Marlin to evolve as a parent by the time he (spoiler!) reunites with his son at the end of the story.

“My whole goal here is to make this character — my main character — a better father, and I don’t have the son with him through the entire movie. How do I work on him?” Stanton said. “That’s when the movie went from a funny situation to a deep movie that we could really, really take advantage of. And I can’t say all came in one moment.”

Other topics discussed during this week’s #UltimateSummerMovieShowdown Q&A include the fight to cast the 72-year-old Brooks, the evolution of Pixar animation and the enduring love for another seminal Stanton entry: 2008’s “Wall-E.”

What’s next: On Thursday, Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” easily bested “E.T.” and “Speed” in the final Week 6 voting for the next #UltimateSummerMovie. Join Chang at 6 p.m. Pacific on June 25 for a live conversation about “Jurassic Park” on the Los Angeles Times’ Classic Hollywood Facebook page, YouTube and Twitter.


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