A Twist Of Fate Sparked The Idea For Finding Nemo's Dory

Dory, the absentminded, big-eyed blue tang who "just keeps swimming" through the adventures of "Finding Nemo" and her eponymous sequel "Finding Dory," is Ellen DeGeneres' most iconic character. The little fish revived the standup comic's ailing career and launched an unforgettable forgetful Disney-Pixar character. It wouldn't have happened without DeGeneres' own voice and a stroke of inspiration from writer-director Andrew Stanton.

In a discussion with The Los Angeles Times, Stanton revealed that his initial concept for "Finding Nemo" would follow Marlin, Nemo's father, and a male fish friend as they tracked down Nemo across the sea. Stanton had worked out that Marlin's compatriot would be Gill, a Moorish Idol, but the plot just wasn't working out. The writers would later relegate Gill, voiced by Willem Dafoe, to a secondary character in the Tank Gang toward the latter half of the film.

It wasn't until Stanton heard Ellen DeGeneres' voice that the female fish character, Dory, came to life, he told the L.A. Times, he overheard his wife watching DeGeneres' sitcom, and fell in love with the comedian's performance:

"... I heard her change the sentence, the subject of a sentence, five times before she got from the beginning to the end. And it just, a lightbulb 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, her literal voice, out of my head, and suddenly all the writer's block I had just unloaded."

More than memory loss

DeGeneres' voice didn't just inform the mannerisms of the character, it brought a refreshing dynamic between male and female characters in a Disney film. Stanton began pondering why Marlin couldn't have a female friend and why it couldn't be a platonic relationship. Much like Stanton's first Disney-Pixar film, "Toy Story," this new twist would upend Disney tropes that often centered plot lines around romantic love.

Stanton sent the script to DeGeneres, admitting that he created the character for her and was desperate for her to take it. He may not have realized at the time that DeGeneres was desperate too. ABC cancelled her sitcom after season 5 due to low ratings, and she hadn't found new work, she told ET:

"I hadn't worked at all ... People don't realize that, because it took three years to do 'Finding Nemo.' In the time that [The Ellen Show] was canceled, while I was doing nothing, [writer/director] Andrew Stanton had heard my voice on TV and how rambling I was and how I never stayed on topic, and he wrote Dory with me in mind."

Out of work and into the water

It's not the first time that an actor changed the fate of a Disney-Pixar character. Tom Hanks' likability and his own improvisations helped turn Woody from a bossy, abrasive sheriff into a lovable, if neurotic, leading man in "Toy Story." The animators even modeled some of Dory's looks on DeGeneres, a fact that made the comedian actress a little uncomfortable, she told CBS:

"It's the first time anyone came to me with a movie that they created a character for me and it turns out that it's a fish. So it's flattering and frightening at the same time ... Supposedly they film you and your characteristics are in the fish ... We never see ourselves as we really are and if that's what I look like I just have to accept it"

By the time "Finding Nemo" hit theaters in 2003, it had appeared that the tide was turning for DeGeneres. She had just scored a new talk show, "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," that would later crown her the new queen of daytime after Oprah bowed out a few years earlier. Though DeGeneres' "be kind" mantra honed on her talk show came crashing down in 2020, Dory's wide-eyed warmth has remained intact.