Pixar is a victim of its own success in a great many ways, because now if one of their movies doesn’t break you down into slobbering mess contemplating the purpose and value and your own existence, then it somehow didn’t meet expectations. But it’s okay for Pixar movies to be merely fun; fun and heartwarming without grander aspirations to remind you of your own humanity, or your own mortality. That’s where Finding Dory lives. The sequel to the 2003 smash hit Finding Nemo is the perfect sequel in that it expands the world of the original, allows its characters to grow just a little bit more, and recaptures the same sense of fun without too terribly rocking the boat.
That’s a good thing because Pixar’s enjoyed a hit and miss record so far as sequels go. If the film was called Toy Story, it was a hit, and if it wasn’t, it was a miss. For fans of the original Finding Nemo, director/co-writer Andrew Stanton slips easily and assuredly back into the ocean world of Marlin (Albert Brooks), Nemo (Hayden Rolence) and Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) as they meet old friends, and make new ones in a sudden quest to find Dory’s parents on the other side of the ocean. The result is utterly charming and crowd-pleasing. You leave the theater with a smile on your face, and more than a couple of the film’s gags will stick with you after the credits roll.
That does seem like the preoccupation of the film: how best can we recreate the circumstances of Finding Nemo to tell a new story. It should be a perfect case for the dreaded “sequel-itis” that’s been plaguing many movies this summer, but sometimes it’s not what you do, but how you do it. Finding Dory does what good sequels do, and builds on the story in a way that allows the plucky comic relief to take centerstage in a believable and relatable way. Dory’s gag, her ever present short-term memory loss, is given a tragic twist as she starts getting sudden bursts of insight into her parents and where she’s from. A flashback at the beginning shows how, like Nemo, Dory was fretted upon by her parents (Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton), who worried that she might not be able to make it out in the big ocean alone, until fates separates them.
It sounds weird, but watching Dory unfold is like a kiddie version of Momento with fish. New events and encounters set off snippets of memory in Dory as she leads Marlin and Nemo to an aquarium and marine rescue institute in California. Marlin is skeptical all the way, of course, and he eventually loses patience with Dory, which is really the only time that anyone gets angry and lashes out at Dory for her particular affliction. Indeed, there’s a subtle undercurrent (heh) message in the film of acceptance and understanding. The kids at Nemo’s school – one of numerous fish jokes that are obvious, yet somehow don’t stink – don’t mock Dory, or call her stupid; she just forgets for a minute, that’s Dory, and that’s fine. After the kind of week this has been, that’s a very welcome one to grow on.
The only other character than Marlin to show any irritability with Dory is Hank the octopus (Ed O’Neill). Make that septapus owing to his having lost a tentacle, which is one of the reasons he’s perpetually grouchy, so it really isn’t anything personal. Hank may be my new favourite Pixar character thanks to O’Neill’s crotchety line readings and the expressive animation that gives Hank so much personality, even though he only ever acts with his eyes. It’s Hank and Dory’s attempts to navigate across the park, which is sorta sold as a more ethical Sea World, that fills the movie with its best gags and exchanges. Hank helps Dory in exchange for an ID tag that will allow Hank to enjoy the comforts of Cleveland aquarium rather than return to the sea, but of course, he gets invested in Dory’s journey along the way.
Naturally, this being Pixar, the cast is universally excellent. Former The Wire adversaries Idris Elba and Dominic West play friendly sea lions who sit pretty, literally at the top of the rock, though they spend much of their time stopping poor Gerald, another sea lion, from sharing their perch. It’s Always Sunny‘s Kaitlin Olsen plays Dory’s old friend Destiny, a near-sighted whale shark who gives Dory insight and encouragement, while Destiny’s neighbour, a beluga whale named Bailey, voiced by O’Neill’s Modern Family co-star Ty Burrell, is more the cautious type, but his echo location comes in very handy later on in the movie. That, with Sigourney Weaver as herself as the voice of the aquarium’s guide, provide one of the best Alien gags I’ve seen in a long while at the cinema.
Good gags are fine, but the heart of the film is DeGeneres’ bittersweet performance as Dory. The movie doesn’t dwell too much on the tragic notion of Dory’s condition being the cause of her having lost her family, but it’s left for the audience to fill in those blanks. Throughout the movie there’s a palpable feeling of futility, even in spite of Dory’s unfailing optimism, that she’s on a fool’s errand trying to make it through this park and more than a few obstacles to reconnect with her parents. But there’s also a message that in spite of this obstacles, pursuing your dreams whether futile or not, is a good thing. “What Would Dory Do” also becomes a thing, a subtle jab that Marlin, and some of us in the audience, sometimes autopsy our actions in excess before we ever do anything. Don’t act recklessly, but accept the greater value is in acting rather than staying stuck in a dead end.
There’s something old fashioned in this story and those messages, and even though Finding Dory is impeccably designed and crafted in every modern sense on a technical level, it feels like a throwback to vintage Disney films like Homeward Bound, which unapologetically reinforces the value and strength of loyalty and family, and how any risk is acceptable if it means keeping those things in your life. In other words, Pixar does it again! In a summer that seems to be testing the public’s tolerance for sequels, Finding Dory signs, seals and delivers on the hype and will leave both child and parent happy as they head off to the toy store to inevitably pick up the merchandise, or get the Happy Meal toys.
Incidentally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the short film that proceeded Finding Dory. It was called Piper and it’s highly realistic animation feels like the technology is quite nearly ready to push as all the way through the looking glass. You can see every grain of sand, every bubble burst in the incoming tide, and every ruffled feather on the poor baby bird just trying to get a seed on the beach. Plus, Piper is unstoppably cute, which you can’t help but notice even as you’re dazzled by the quite nearly seamless realism. When we enter the Matrix, we’ll remember Piper for helping to get us there.