Finding Nemo Finds Its Voice – in Navajo
Leading up to the June release of Disney/Pixar’s Finding Dory, the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Ariz., recently released its year-long project dubbing Finding Nemo in the Navajo language.
Courtesy Navajo Nation Museum, www.navajonationmuseum.org
A unique partnership with one of the country’s most recognized animation studios and one of the country’s largest tribes is giving way to a first for the two: the first Pixar movie to be voiced entirely in a Native American language.
Over the past year, the Navajo Nation has been working with Pixar Animation Studies, now owned by Disney, on dubbing a Navajo language version of Finding Nemo. The film, Nemo Hádéést'íí, premiered in Albuquerque in early March and played in select cities around the Southwest. The DVD for the film is now on sale at the Navajo Nation Museum and at Wal-Mart locations in the Southwest.
"It was funny; I didn't expect it to be so amazing," says Trina Begay (Navajo), who watched the premier with her 71-year-old mom and 9-year-old granddaughter. "I think it will help with reviving the language. I'm glad it was funny; that made it enjoyable."
The release of Nemo Hádéést'íí comes as excitement builds for the upcoming release of the Finding Nemo sequel. Disney/Pixar’s Finding Dory hits theaters June 17. The original story, about a young clown fish captured, lost and reunited with his dad, is one families can relate to and understand, says Manuelito Wheeler (Navajo), director of the Navajo Nation Museum.
Hopes are high with the film’s goal to also help preserve and encourage others to learn Navajo.
“We’re doing this for the language, and to create an inviting aspect of language preservation, when we create this environment of teaching, by that, not by teaching in the classroom, but making teaching fun,” says Wheeler. “When everyone is having a good time, it helps with breaking down barriers. Even with adults, when I go into an environment where everyone is speaking Navajo, there is still a small level of being unsure with myself. When it’s comedy, people really open up to learning.”
The Navajo Nation has had success in the past with another high profile studio in creating the Navajo language version of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. The tribe worked with LucasFilm on the project, which wrapped in 2013, and has since been released on DVD. It was spearheaded by Wheeler, who worked for more than a decade on a goal to dub a major motion picture into Navajo.
“It was a great success in that it brought attention to the importance of learning Navajo and an awareness to how learning Navajo is not something to be taken for granted. We all need awareness of the language and need to make sure it will survive in the future,” says Wheeler.
The quality of the Navajo dubbed Pixar film struck movie goers during premier night in Tempe, Ariz.
With a big smile, Stella Joe (Navajo), from Salina Springs, Ariz., says it was exciting to hear Navajo on the big screen.
"It was my first time seeing a film using our language," Joe says. "It was amazing to see how they did that, matching the words to their mouths. It made me think, how did they do that? It was amazing."
Native Peoples magazine (NPM) discussed the film project with Manuelito Wheeler (Navajo) and Quinton Kien (Navajo), the 12-year-old Navajo voice of Nemo.
NPM: How did the project surface and get started?
WHEELER: With our previous work with Star Wars, we were able to connect with Disney, which led to discussion to do a Disney movie in Navajo. We pursued Disney because after watching Star Wars, we knew our next movie had to be a children’s movie, and who better than to do a children’s movie than with Disney?
NPM: Tell us about writing the script.
WHEELER: In working with Star Wars, we understood what it took, so when Nemo came along, to be quicker, we had two translators go over script. They translated the whole script in 36 hours. Star Wars took 36 hours as well. But Finding Nemo had almost twice as much dialogue as Star Wars.
NPM: How were actors chosen?
WHEELER: When it came to casting, we followed what we did with Star Wars. We held auditions at the Navajo Nation Museum. Nothing on video. We recorded audio. Then from that, we [chose actors based] on two things: How fluent they sound and how close to the [original] character they sound. Then it goes to Disney and they choose who will be cast. Finding younger actors was a little more difficult. We were aware of Quinton. We had to make special arrangements to go out [to Steamboat, Ariz.] and auditioned him at his house.
NPM: How many children are in the film?
WHEELER: We have over 14 child actors. A good amount came from Tséhootsooi Dine Bi’Olta the (Navajo language) immersion school in Fort Defiance [Arizona]… It’s evidence that Navajo teaching is working. It’s exciting we have a full cast of child actors in the movie. It gives me hope that our language is safe. It doesn’t mean work is done, but the children that came forth – they did awesome.
NPM: Did you grow up watching Pixar movies?
KIEN: Nope. When I was little we didn’t have electricity. My grandma still doesn’t have electricity.”
NPM: So was this your first time seeing Nemo?
KIEN: I think I saw it before, a long time ago, but working on the film, it was my first time seeing it all.
NPM: How did you feel after you found out you were going to be the voice of Nemo?
KIEN: I felt good. It was fun and it was interesting.
NPM: As a young Diné, are you worried about the future of the Navajo language?
KIEN: I’m worried, because our tradition is when people stop speaking the language, it’s almost time for our world to end. But I’m really interested in preserving the language and hope the movie helps. I hope people learn from the movie. I love my people, and I hope they get their language back for the future.
As a former actor and screenwriter, Levi Long has a fondness for the performing arts and brings more than 10 years of professional journalism writing experience to the field. He is a member of the Navajo Nation and holds a bachelor’s in English communications from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. Contact Levi at firstname.lastname@example.org, find him on Facebook or tweet him @LeviJaredTweets.