by Philip Price
It has been 13 years since Disney and Pixar released their fifth feature length film together in “Finding Nemo,” a movie about a timid clownfish who set out across the ocean to try and find his son. With that film, Disney and Pixar achieved the worldwide domination that the “Toy Story” franchise thus far had suggested and that “Monsters Inc.” had more or less solidified two years earlier. With “Finding Nemo” the animation studio proved once and for all they were no fluke and that their originals could be just as compelling and inventive as their sequels. So now, 13 years later, we finally have a sequel to one of the Pixar films that both could have remained a stellar single film while also (along with “The Incredibles”) being one of the Pixar films that audiences longed for a sequel to and would have much preferred over another ‘Cars’ movie. Has the moment passed though? Even “Toy Story 3” came in under the 13 year mark, but it has now legitimately been a full generation (or two) since “Finding Nemo” debuted in thetaers. Of course, the answer is no as through the power of DVD's, blu-ray's and the ever-improving home theater experience children and viewers who were once children who now have their own children will continue to watch their favorite Disney and Pixar films no matter how much time passes. I will certainly show my child the magic of “Finding Nemo” once she's emotionally ready for those first 10 minutes, but the point is to say that it was never going to be too late for “Finding Dory” and more than anything most audiences will be happy to know it's finally here. And so, with that said and with all of that to live up to, how is the actual film? In short, it is perfectly capable. It is extremely sweet and cute in all the right ways. The flashbacks to Dory as a baby with her parents (voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) teaching her how to cope with her short term memory loss will absolutely make a puddle out of any viewer with a heart. “Finding Dory” also succeeds in not being a carbon copy of the original and offers a fair amount of new characters that are also fun, sweet and cute. As the film draws to its close though, it becomes clear ‘Dory’ will pack none of the emotional heft that many of the best Pixar films do. While there are certainly moments of great weight and substance in Dory's quest to locate where she came from the overall arc of the film never latches onto a specific idea or theme in a way that through the film’s execution comes to feel profound. Instead, “Finding Dory” is a fun, beautifully animated diversion and sometimes that is just good enough.
Taking place a year after the events of the first film the friendly-but-forgetful blue tang (again voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) is now living happily with Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence) as well as helping out Mr. Ray (Bob Peterson) with the schools of fish in which Nemo is now happily a part of. One day, Mr. Ray decides to take his young group of sea creatures on a field trip to see his relatives as they make their way back home on their yearly migration. Seeing the barrage of stingray's rush by and accidentally getting swept up in their current triggers something in Dory's typically forgetful brain as she begins to remember bits and pieces of her past, most of it surrounding the location of her parents, Jenny and Charlie. And so, the moment Dory is able to even catch a glimpse of a memory she, without thinking, becomes determined to try and track down and find her long lost parents. This may sound familiar as embarking on an adventure across the ocean to try and locate the whereabouts of a few other fish is more or less the same plight Marlin and Dory faced in the original, but there are enough differentiators along the way and plenty of new characters that it never feels we are travelling down the same aquatic road. Instead, with the help of Crush the sea turtle (voiced by director Andrew Stanton) Dory, Marlin and Nemo make their way to their first clue fairly quickly. Winding up just outside the Marine Life Institute they are warmly welcomed by the voice of Sigourney Weaver who, in a great little running joke, clearly has a contract with the Institute to narrate the guest's activities and welcome them warmly. Without knowing it and with a nod to reasons why we shouldn't pollute our oceans Dory is picked up by workers from the institute and taken to the quarantine building. Through the power of Weaver's vocal direction and the help of some especially territorial sea lions (voiced by Idris Elba and Dominic West) Marlin and Nemo discover where Dory has been taken and that her parents may very well be in captivity inside the institute. Meanwhile, on the inside, Dory makes friends with a cranky septopus named Hank (Ed O'Neill) who agrees to help her escape in exchange for a tag that will send him to Cleveland. Little does Dory know the more she explores the Marine Life Institute the more she'll begin to remember.
“Finding Dory” really uses this conservatory of diverse ocean species to its advantage both in how it allows the story to unfold while introducing us to a number of new characters and interesting obstacles. First, there is the way in which Stanton and fellow writers Victoria Strouse and Bob Peterson are able to take what is essentially the same story from the first film and change it up just enough so that viewers will feel as if they're getting more of what they loved while also being treated to something new and fresh. On top of that they weave into the narrative little asides on Dory's part that come to be explained and thus more meaningful in organic enough ways that it feels smart-it feels as if there is real circumstance and basic logic to what is occurring which is, surprisingly enough, sometimes hard to find in the movies. By allowing the plot and Dory to connect the dots between the bits and pieces Dory recalls from her past and how they relate to her current environment while propelling that plot forward is rather ingenious and makes for a wholly satisfying experience when it comes to the adventure these familiar characters are embarking upon. And then there is how the film takes advantage of its new setting in order to introduce a whole cast of new characters into play that will also undoubtedly connect to Dory's past both in ways we might hope and might not imagine. The main attraction in this new set of characters is the aforementioned Hank who comes to the aid of Dory for his own intents and purposes, but naturally, as we all have, eventually warms up to the forgetful fish and becomes more of an ally than an accomplice only in on the adventure for selfish reasons. Hank is a stubborn septopus who enjoys the solitary life a tank provides, but has been exposed to children far too long and is now on the verge of being set free from the institute and back into the ocean where he'd rather not interact with other sea creatures. Naturally, Hank comes to learn a few things about the real meaning of family as he helps Dory try and locate hers. Also in the mix is Dory's childhood friend named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson) a whale shark who is nearsighted and therefore not a very graceful swimmer. Destiny may be the reason Dory can speak whale, but with the help of her beluga whale neighbor, Bailey (Ty Burrell), she is also the first real sign of hope that Dory may indeed be headed in the right direction. It would also be a shame not to mention the third sea lion Gerald (Torbin Xan Bullock) who absolutely steals the single scene he appears in and who elicited one of the biggest laughs I've had in the theater in a long time.
All of these new characters and all of the obstacles in the world can't make “Finding Dory” a cut above the rest though, and so this highly-anticipated sequel falls more in line with the caliber of “The Good Dinosaur” than its predecessor. The cause for this is not simply the fact “Finding Dory” has nothing of real significance or importance to say, but more that it doesn't use its premise to say something that would merit such nouns. Rather, the movie exists on a field that is of the colorful and fun variety with little going on below the surface. There are no larger themes at play, there is no small facet of life audience members might relate to on a singular level, but understand relates to a wide range of audience members so as to create a feeling of unity and understanding among a mass amount of people. Of course, not all entertainment necessarily has to serve this purpose, but can be nothing more than entertainment and nothing more. It is simply the high bar Pixar has set for itself that we come to their films with the expectation that not only will we get beautifully rendered animation and consistent laughs, but that we might pick up on aspects of ourselves that we didn't recognize before. That we might learn a few lessons that may have needed to be learned or were worth repeating, but for a movie about the creatures of the deep blue sea “Finding Dory” doesn't care to go very deep itself. Sure, it has a few heartfelt moments about how family can be more than flesh and blood given Nemo and Marlin are separated from the titular blue tang less than half way through the film and don't dare to give up on her, but while these moments pull the necessary strings they tend to leave very little impact. Much like last year's superior, but equally frustrating “Inside Out” Pixar has become reliant on the literal journey of their main characters to serve as the backbone of the story. My qualm with “Inside Out” was that it didn't take advantage of the stellar premise and ideas it had going in, but instead made it more about two characters facing obstacle after obstacle in order to get back home. Whereas “Inside Out” layered in reasoning and insight into its journey, as well as some insanely creative stuff happening within the obstacles along the way “Finding Dory” feels more by the numbers and more as if it positions obstacles so as to extend the running time rather than serving any real purpose. That doesn't make “Finding Dory” a bad movie - it is fun, diverting entertainment that is easy to enjoy, but when you come from a family tree that has produced some stellar specimens more is going to be expected of you than being good enough.