Directors: Andrew Stanton, Angus MacLane
Starring: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Hayden Rolence, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy
Animation studio Pixar has produced more than its fair share of beloved movies but 2003’s Finding Nemo undoubtedly sits close to the top of their very impressive pile. So it was inevitable that we would return to the Pacific Ocean for another installment, and with Dory, the lovable blue tang with the five-second memory, being arguably their most popular character it made sense that she would play a starring role. The only surprise then is that it took 13 years for us to get there. But Pixar’s track record is not nearly as impressive when it comes to sequels. With the exception of Toy Story 2 and 3, none of the others have really hit the mark. Pixar is undoubtedly at their best when they are being original and thinking outside the box, but with a title that suggests much the same premise as the first film, can Finding Dory be more than just a simple retread?
“Hi, I’m Dory. I suffer from short term memory loss.” These are the first words we hear in Finding Dory and in an instant they simultaneously re-establish who this character is and entirely reinvent her for this new story. For this line is spoken by Dory as a young child, rehearsing it before her concerned parents. Throughout Finding Nemo, we never questioned Dory’s condition. It was a funny joke, playing off the often cited trivia that goldfish have a five-second memory. We naturally assumed all of Dory’s species had the same condition. But the opening scene of Finding Dory transforms what was a comedic character affectation into what is affectively an intellectual disability she has to learn to manage. So we share her parents’ fears as they try to teach her coping strategies, and experience with sadness the tragedy of watching her wander from home, and search for her parents until she forgets what it was she was looking for, and ultimately forgets all knowledge of her parents.
Part spin-off and part sequel, the main events of Finding Dory take place one year after the events of Finding Nemo. The original trio of characters return – Marlin (Albert Brooks), Nemo (Hayden Rolence) and Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) – but a change in focus now makes Dory the central character, with Nemo and Marlin taking supporting roles. While on an excursion with Nemo’s class to witness the stingray migration, Dory is hit by a flash of memory that compels her to try and find her home and parents. She persuades Marlin and Nemo to head off across the Pacific Ocean in search of the Marine Life Institute in California. The trans-Pacific journey which took the entirety of the first film is covered in an instant, and not long after arriving on the Californian shore Dory is separated from her companions.
The Marine Life Institute is very intentionally presented as an aquatic rehabilitation centre rather than a theme park – likely in response to the strong anti-SeaWorld sentiment created by the 2013 documentary Blackfish’s exposé of their treatment of Orcas – and while the humans working there are sometimes presented as obstacles, there is no suggestion that they are villains. So with the help of a new friend, Hank (Ed O’Neill), grumpy octopus who has lost a tentacle – which Dory helpfully points out technically makes him a “septopus” – and two old friends, who given Dory’s condition may as well be new friends, Destiny (Kaitlin Olson) the long sighted whale shark and Bailey (Ty Burrell) the navigationally challenged beluga, Dory has to navigate her way around the park to try and find her parents.
Dory’s condition makes her the ultimate innocent, and that is what makes her so popular. Endearingly captured in Ellen DeGeneres’ vocal performance, Dory lives in the moment because she has no other option. She finds joy and wonder in what is in front of her face. It made her the perfect foil to the anxious parent Marlin in Finding Nemo, and now this film expands her story and gives her a depth beyond just the initial joke, while potentially making you feel just a touch of guilt for having laughed at her so often first time around. Writers Andrew Stanton and Victoria Strouse explain the rules of her condition. There are some things she remembers purely because they are logical. So she remembers that she has parents, because how else could she be here. She just doesn’t remember who they are or where they are. The screenplay attempts to walk a fine line in the film between giving Dory the flashes of memory she needs to progress the narrative without betraying the limitations of who this character is.
While Finding Dory is primarily a tale about Dory finding herself through rediscovering her past, the title also refers to Marlin and Nemo’s literal quest once they are separated from their forgetful friend. For fish they sure spend a lot of time out of the water here, as they have to navigate their way from enclosure to enclosure. This is a particular challenge for the cautious and fearful Marlin, one he can only overcome by learning to think like Dory. Ultimately, though, there is less at stake in this film than the first. We want Marlin and Nemo to find Dory, and we obviously want Dory to find her parents, but neither of those dilemmas draws the same raw emotional response as that of the lost child in Finding Nemo.
While Finding Dory is better than sequels like Cars 2 or Monsters University, it still lacks some of that inventiveness we associate with Pixar at its best. It’s central message – that family can be more than just blood relatives – is touching, but hardly ground-breaking, and with no real antagonist, and an ending which seems inevitable, it does start to feel long even with its relatively tight, 97 minute run-time. However its characters, both old and new, are charming, and it has some good laughs, ensuring that there is enough there to make for a mostly satisfying sequel for those already invested in these characters.
Finding Dory is preceded by a short film called Piper, about a baby sea-bird learning how to dig for her own food in the waves. It is a sweet, simple story that gives Pixar the opportunity to show off some of their most photorealistic animation yet.
Review by Duncan McLean
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