I swear I mean this as a compliment; Finding Dory is the most entertaining needless sequel that you’ll see this summer. It’s true, this sequel wasn’t entirely necessary but if anyone could do it and still make an unnecessary movie that was still entertaining and fun, it had to be Pixar. For me, that has to do with the effect that this studio has on my expectations. They’ve been so good for so long that I’ve returned to their creative pallet again and again for 21 years with nothing but great expectations. Often I’ve been very forgiving, as with Cars 2 and Brave but it’s only because I know that in the animation game, Pixar is the top of the line. Where others are satisfied to make of-the-moment hyperactive farting toy commercials, Pixar excels in making movies that will last forever.
Will Finding Dory last forever? Not on its own. Future generations will seek it only because its wagon is hitched to one of the most original and engaging movies that Pixar ever created. They’ll see it out of curiosity after the wonderment of Finding Nemo, but I think maybe they will have the same mediocre response that I did. They’ll be entertained but it won’t change their world.
If I sound a little dismissive while still calling the movie entertaining, that’s only because my brain is still in the glow of another Pixar movie that came along 12 months ago. That movie I declared the best film of the year, and it has since become my favorite film of Pixar’s entire body of work. Inside Out was a glorious explosion of creative instincts, a fresh idea that lifted the animated form and really swung for the fences. With that, you could understand how Finding Dory might seem like a step backward.
The story is, more or less, the same. Wherein Marlin the clownfish had to find his son in the vast environs of the ocean in the previous film, here Dory sets off on a quest to find her parents. In moving the supporting player of Nemo to the central role in Dory, the focus has shifted. Dory’s major character trait is that she suffers from short-term memory loss heaped on top of a massive dose of ADD. In Finding Nemo this was played mostly for laughs, but in Finding Dory it becomes a source for drama, and offers up the film’s narrative drive. Surprisingly, it works.
The first 20 minutes of the film are a bit awkward, feeling less like a story progression than like outtakes from Finding Nemo. We meet baby Dory, a tiny adorable Pacific Regal Blue Tang whose parents Charlie (Eugene Levy) and Jenny (Diane Keaton) struggle to teach their little guppy how to survive in the big bad world. Their plight will be felt by any parent who has to deal with a child with a disability. Naturally, Dory gets lost in the cavernous environs of the ocean armed with a Swiss-cheese memory that leaves her wondering if her parent’s fate was her fault. As she grows up, she wanders from place to place and, years later, runs head-long into Marlin the clownfish.
Cut to a year after Marlin (Albert Brooks) was reunited with Nemo (Hayden Roylence) and Dory’s brain begins to suggest a possible location where her parents may have ended up. That leads to a great big adventure wherein Dory and Marlin and Nemo get lost in The Morro Bay Marine Life Institute, a rehabilitation center and aquarium lorded over by the omniscient voice of Sigourney Weaver. The adventures at the aquarium are where the movie really takes off. The design of the films is incredible not just in the water but on land. As with the Ocean in the first film, this one visualizes the world of the aquarium as both enormous and oppressive. It’s barricades are the template for a lot of great action. If the Pixar animators have one specialty, it is how to pace an action scene. I was surprised at how many creative ways they found the keep Dory and Marlin and Nemo hopping from one body of water to another while inside the hallways of the facility. Many times they land in bodies of water that, I’m positive, were not sea water but we don’t go to this movie for accuracy. Much of the film is action and it’s always engaging, especially the third act. Let’s put it his way, the last thing I expected in Finding Dory was a car chase.
At the aquarium, Dory befriends Hank (Ed O’Neill) a cranky old octopus whose only desire in life is to be shipped to a facility in Cleveland. Hank is actually the most fun character in the movie; he’s animated beautifully especially when he moves from place to place using his chameleon ability to hide in plain sight. He’s part of a very large cast of creative supporting players. Aside from the fish, we also get a near-sided whale shark named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson); a scatter-brained beluga whale named Bailey (Ty Burrell) who thinks he has head trauma; and two lazy sea lions who lord over their place in the sun; and assorted sting rays, birds, otters and other sea life. The specialty of the film is that the characters are drawn specifically. They all have a story to tell and each is interesting its own way. What I appreciated was that none of these characters seems to have been created to sell toys at McDonald’s, none are spewing catchphrases and none have a focal point on their bodily functions. I know that sounds like an odd compliment but if you see the other animated features that have come out this year like Norm of the North, Angry Birds or Ratchet and Clank you’d be surprised how normal those things have become.
Even with all the great character designs, the key here is Dory. The filmmakers do a good job of giving her something interesting to do. She’s funny and she’s touching even if her story isn’t essential. Much of her appeal, of course, is in the performance of Ellen Degeneres, whose comic chops convince me that stand-up comedians are the best at doing voice work. Like Robin Williams and Tim Allen and Patton Oswalt, Degeneres knows that the essential key to comedy is to keep the energy level always in motion. There’s something in her delivery that feels like a character, not a celebrity doing a kids movie. We believe her in this role because even when the story gets soggy because she believes the emotions she’s playing. That, in many ways gave me a new respect for this character. In the previous film she was just the comedy relief, but here her story is given some weight.
The emotions drive home the movie’s theme, which is the struggle of someone with a disability. As someone who has struggled with reading comprehension, I felt some of Dory’s problems. She can’t remember things. Often her brain plays tricks on her, other times it seems selective but she struggles to get a handle on it. The movie feels the isolation and frustration of someone pulled down by these issues even when the world seems to have given up on her. I started this review by saying that the movie is not essential. I still believe that, but I think it will speak to a kid who has to work a little bit harder to overcome adversity. This movie is for them. In its own strange way, it is encouraging. It says that you’re not alone, that having a disability doesn’t mean that you’re broken. You just have to find a way around the problem, keep on working, keep on trying and keep on swimming.
The annual Pixar short film was something special. Told simply, the film is called Piper, the story of a hungry newborn sandpiper whose mother tries to help it overcome hydrophobia brought on by some crashing waves so that it can grab something to eat. The message ties in beautifully with Finding Dory as it becomes another story of a parent trying to teach its child to overcome its fears. The animation here is beautiful, making the characters seem less anthropomorphic and more like something out of a nature documentary. I expect to hear about this one again at the Oscars next spring.