Finding Dory: Pixar Jumps Back from the Drop-Off

Finding Dory

Ellen DeGeneres’ star moment, at long last. (image source)

Great news! To the relief of everyone who’s had to witness the depressing trend of Pixar sequels over the last decade (from Toy Story 2…to Cars 2), this time, Pixar didn’t screw up. Well, okay, that may be an overstatement. Finding Dory is not the same as Finding Nemo; a sequel that good would be impossible to make. But this new entry nevertheless keeps you mightily entertained with a host of absorbing plot elements and characters, all without abandoning the theme and charm of the original. Once a comic foil, Dory now successfully holds her own as a protagonist in her own right.

The title of the movie almost speaks for itself. Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), Marlin (Albert Brooks), and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) ought to be happy and carefree after their massive coming-of-age journey 13 years ago (one year in plot time). Alas, Dory’s pesky, on-and-off memory won’t have it that way. It starts to bother her with images of her long-lost family, whom she vaguely recalls as two adoring parents she got separated from…how long ago? With her characteristic techniques of persuasion and begging, Dory gets Marlin and Nemo to follow her across the ocean to the “Jewel of Monterey Bay,” the only clue to her past that’s snuggled its way into her virtually nonexistent “permanent” memory.

From there, the trio discover that the “jewel” turns out to be the fictional Marine Life Institute, an aquarium-research center devoted to “rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing” fish found in the ocean. Needless to say, once there, Dory goes Dory and messes up Marlin’s smooth, orderly plans of enter and exit. The ensuing chaos sends them scrambling through every single pipeline, exhibit, and freeway in the bay. Along the way, we get to know many of the aquarium’s peculiar inhabitants, particularly a surly octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill), who spends much of the movie pulling out every camouflage trick in the book (he’d do good as an oceanic 007) to escort Dory through the park. All in the name of helping her return to a home whose location she’s still not certain of and reunite with a family she’s not even sure still exists.

You’d think the filmmakers behind Nemo would have run out of good ideas back in 2003. After all, Nemo all but ran the gauntlet with its ginormous ensemble of sharks, anglerfish, sea turtles, and pelicans. Dory follows a similar character-to-character hopping structure, but it manages to make it feel just as fresh and vibrant. The creatures we meet at the Marine Life Institute, particularly Hank, stand out as unique, memorable additions to Nemo’s underwater world. Occasionally, to be sure, the movie gets a bit wound up in its own energy and frenzy; we’ll just have met a new, potentially interesting character before we’re whisked away in a rushed transition to the next leg of Marlin and Dory’s adventure. But Pixar has redeemed itself from the miserable plagiarism of The Good Dinosaur. These beluga whales and mentally-challenged birds are a pleasure to behold.

Dory isn’t perfect, however, and nowhere are the trade-offs of this movie better seen than in Dory herself. In Nemo, Dory was the hilarious sidekick that inevitably made you facepalm…again…and again…and again. She still is pretty funny here, but because she’s now the protagonist of her own movie, she goes from being the center of every joke to the center of an emotional tale of maturity and rediscovery. In so doing, she loses a little bit of the distinctive comedic luster that originally made her so compelling. Some of the gags Dory gets involved in feel a tad deflating, an acceptable but second-class substitute for the “whale-speak” and “just keep swimming” routines Pixar fanatics know by heart.

That said, Dory does also get to develop as a character, and it’s enjoyable and occasionally touching to see how she grows over the course of her journey. Short-term memory loss is no longer an adorable antic; here, it’s the one thing holding her from the most precious part of her life. She goes through stages of insecurity, anxiety and self-loathing that Nemo only touched on. (The sentimental might even find themselves shedding a tear.) Even if her path to total familial bliss takes a few shortcuts in the name of time and entertainment, we eventually walk away appreciative of the nuance Pixar gives her role. Beyond the jokes, this movie builds out of Dory’s story a solid tribute to the meaning of family and friendship, a timely, well-designed extension of the themes of Nemo. It’s a useful reminder that everyone has a story of struggle worth listening to, and its thoughtfulness harks back to the Pixar of old. (Before Cars 2, when the tigers came and killed the dream.)

So, all in all, Pixar hasn’t killed our childhood. It’s not flawless, but Finding Dory ends up being a rather delightful addition to the 2016 film canon. It’s less the exploitative, money-grabbing, lame-jokes-ridden sequel we pessimists feared than an illuminating, engaging, natural follow-up that does Nemo proud. Prepare to see all the cool old characters make a return (some, alas, only in brief cameos after the credits), but also meet a fun new cast of nearsighted whale sharks and adorable otters. And watch Dory take you to poignant emotional depths you never imagined this shark-loving, haphazardly literate fish was ever capable of.

Good work for now, Pixar. But don’t think you’re out of the woods yet. Brad Bird had better know what he’s doing with The Incredibles 2.

Vital Stats:

Finding Dory (2016)

Starring: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Ty Burrell, Idris Elba, Dominic West

Running Time: 105 minutes

Rating: PG

Produced by: Lindsey Collins

Directed by: Andrew Stanton, Angus McLane

Written by: Andrew Stanton, Victoria Strouse