In case you missed Finding Dory or blocked the sea lion scenes out of your memory as I wish I could, Gerald is a sea lion who appears pretty clearly to have some sort of developmental disability. His goal in life, as it seems, is to join Fluke and Rudder, two seemingly neurotypical sea lions, on the warm sunny rock that they bask on throughout the day. With his wide-set eyes, prominent overbite, exaggerated brow, friendly-but-naive disposition, and non-verbal role in an otherwise very talkative ocean, it’s fairly obvious that this character was intended to represent someone with a developmental disability.
The really depressing part of this plot line is that Gerald never really gets his day. Fluke and Rudder never accept him or change their behavior toward him, but are still generally represented as ‘good guys’ in the movie. There’s no lesson learned, no apology, no moment of realization. The story doesn’t address the way that they bully Gerald and exploit his disability as a bad thing. It’s just a bitter punchline that they hammer home over and over again. Gerald naively and grudgelessly hopes for inclusion, and Fluke and Rudder repeatedly crush that dream by being cruel to him. That’s the whole joke.
Call me a party-pooper, but I’m not laughing. There are a few things that this joke relies on for its humor. The first is that Gerald is funny looking and different. If they had animated Gerald as super cute with big oversized eyes and chubby cheeks à la baby Dory, no one would have laughed at the bullies picking on him. Everyone would have said, “What was with that?? That was horrible!”. But hey, picking on people who are funny looking and different is hilarious, right? The second thing the joke relies on is how funny it is when Fluke and Rudder team up to loudly shoo him away. It’s a familiar motif — a spin-off of the famous “MINE? MINE? MINE” from ‘Finding Nemo’, which was irresistibly imitatable. Sadly, so is this - and it builds a perfect stencil for kids to use when teaming up to exclude kids from the jungle gym at the playground.
With this film having disability empowerment as a major theme, why on Earth would the editors let this plot line happen? Who approved these storyboards? It’s a moot point, really. At this point, the damage is done. The film is out there. The most we can hope for is that parents pick up where Disney left off to follow up with their kids and use the scene as a teachable moment. If you took your kids to see Finding Dory, talk to them. Ask them how they felt about Fluke and Rudder. Ask them how they thought Gerald felt. Ask them what Fluke and Rudder should have done instead. Disney and Pixar made a big misstep here, but let’s turn it into something positive by talking to our kids about bullying — especially when someone is a little bit different from us.