When it comes to sequels, Pixar have a slightly mixed track record. Every one of the ‘Toy Story’ sequels is brilliant. In fact, I’d argue that 3 is the best of the bunch. ‘Monsters University’ is a pleasant, if unnecessary, prequel to ‘Monsters Inc.’. Meanwhile, ‘Cars 2’… Well, it’s easily as good as ‘Cars’. (Full confession: I find ‘Cars’ to be the least interesting of all Pixar movies. So, yeah. Faint praise, indeed.) But ‘Finding Nemo’? Did we really need to follow up on Marlin, Dory, and little Nemo in their undersea world? ‘Finding Dory’ sounded like, pardon the awful metaphor, Pixar treading water.
It’s odd to think how accustomed audiences have become to the genius of Pixar. We take the visual beauty of their movies for granted. Saying a Pixar movie is visually stunning is almost like noting that doors have handles. With it’s rich, oceanic environments, ‘Finding Nemo’ was (still is, actually) one of Pixar’s most gorgeous offerings. Yet I’m not being even slightly hyperbolic when I say that ‘Finding Dory’ easily tops ‘Nemo’. It’s a bizarre sort of compliment that we now judge Pixar movies by their emotional depth rather than groundbreaking visuals. That was the real question I had going into ‘Finding Dory’. Would it add anything to the story begun, and honestly, neatly finished in ‘Finding Nemo’? Could it?
‘Finding Nemo’ was released in 2003, and it’s themes of over-protective parenting hit a certain chord in the zeitgeist. I’m not 100% positive on this, but I don’t think the term “helicopter parent” was a thing yet. The story of a scared father learning to face his fears struck a nerve with many adult viewers. For me at least, ‘Finding Nemo’ was when Pixar really and truly became Pixar. From here on you knew you’d be getting fun, “family-friendly” movies, sure. But you also knew they’d carry weight.
In ‘Finding Nemo’, much of the comic relief was courtesy of Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres. Before she became a daytime TV icon, DeGeneres was one of the most unique stand-up comics working. Her slightly scattered, stream-of-consciousness style fit the forgetful Dory perfectly. But she was also the emotional center of ‘Nemo’. Her friendship with Nemo’s father Marlin took the movie beyond parents and kids. Marlin is severely traumatized. Dory is damaged. They make each other better. Really, it’s almost a love story.
I know, right? Pixar doesn’t muck about. This is heavy stuff, man!
So! Where could ‘Finding Dory’ go that wouldn’t end up being a simple retread of ‘Nemo’?
Well, they say the secret to a happy ending is knowing when to stop. ‘Finding Nemo’ stopped with Marlin, Dor, and Nemo all safe and sound, back home at the Great Barrier Reef. Safe, but also wiser. Dory was more focused. Marlin was less fearful. Nemo finally had a real family. Perfect.
So it’s a brave move for ‘Finding Dory’ to pick up at that perfect spot a year later and show that the “after” of a “happy ever after” can be… awkward. Dory’s forgetfulness seems to be worse than before. Marlin and the rest of the Reef are sympathetic, but they can’t help losing patience with her. Something is missing in Dory’s life. Her story has a big, family-shaped hole in it. After a burst of memories about her parents (adorably voiced by Eugene Levy & Diane Keaton) she sets off to find them. Of course, Marlin and Nemo come along to help.
And, of course, Dory is caught by humans and brought to a Marine Research Institute. Of course, it happens to be the very place where Dory was born. Of course, Marlin and Nemo must mount a near-impossible rescue. At the same time, Dory must traverse a near-impossible series of obstacles as she remembers more and more from her past.
Yes. It’s a tiny bit credulity-stretching. No. It doesn’t matter. It’s a cartoon.
There are some lovely new characters, chief being a seven-legged octopus named Hank. We also meet a childhood friend of Dory’s – a very, very near-sighted whale shark named Destiny. There’s Bailey, a neurotic mess of a beluga whale. Plus, a pair of British-sounding sea lions and one rather psychotic-looking bird named, er, Becky.
(Hint! If you stay to the end of the credits there’s a scene featuring the Fish Tank Gang from ‘Finding Nemo’. Which is a nice bonus.)
That end scene does highlight the one flaw of ‘Finding Dory’. Whereas the Fish Tank Gang were voiced by actors like Willem Dafoe, Allison Janney, and Stephen Root, the new characters are a slightly more generic crew of voices. Ed O’Neil is fine as Hank, the grumpy yet lovable octopus. But his voice is so similar to Albert Brooks’ Marlin that I found myself wondering if Brooks was pulling double duty until I saw the credits. Ty Burell is so nondescript and bland as the white beluga whale Bailey that, I dunno… Maybe that was supposed to be the joke? (At least they didn’t go for a nebbishy Woody Allen type.) Kaitlin Olson (better known as Dee on ‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’) brings a genuinely sweet quality to Destiny that plays off the size of the character beautifully.
Appropriately however, ‘Finding Dory’ pretty much belongs to Ellen DeGeneres. Her comic timing remains flawless. There’s plenty of laughs here, as always in Pixar’s movies. But there are those dark moments. Moments when we see Dory lost and alone. Trying not to panic, even as she realizes that she’s forgetting the thing she most wants to remember. Those moments have an almost unbearable tension, but DeGeneres never oversells them. Which, of course, makes them much more powerful.
It got me thinking how Dory’s scatter-brained silliness was a great portrayal of the way we use humor to make sadness bearable. Her silliness isn’t a side-effect of her forgetfulness – Dory knows she has a problem. She’s always known. And the movie makes it clear that Dory wandered alone for along time before meeting Marlin and Nemo. Her humor, the silliness… it’s her way of making that problem bearable for herself. And her friends.
I know, right? Pixar really doesn’t muck about. As I said, this is heavy, heavy stuff!
If this all sounds too heavy, I promise it’s not. ‘Finding Dory’ is great summer entertainment for the whole family. Kids will love it. As will grown-ups. (Even grown-ups not prone to morbid levels of reflection, such as your humble correspondent.)
In the end, what makes ‘Finding Dory’ a worthy continuation on from the perfect ending of ‘Finding Nemo’ is that it gives us a new appreciation of the character who was essentially that movie’s comic sidekick. Here, we see how Dory was always so much more than a sidekick. She’s brave and resourceful, even if she doesn’t recognize those qualities in herself. She always approaches a situation with kindness and no fear. For all her problems, she carries herself with grace. And that’s something we could all aspire to emulate, comrades.
This world needs more Dorys.