Directed by Andrew Stanton
Opens June 17
Finding Nemo, still one of the biggest-ever animated hits from the geniuses at Pixar Animation Studios, was arguably the first Pixar movie to make their parenting subtext into actual text. The Toy Story movies positioned a child’s playthings as combination best friends, faithful employees, and surrogate parents. Monsters, Inc. saw a big furry monster, an expert in scaring children, coming to terms with his fear of them and learning to parent. But Finding Nemo is straight up about a father, the joke-averse clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) who loses his wife and becomes enormously protective of his little son Nemo, and must traverse the ocean to find him. From there, The Incredibles, Inside Out, and Brave, among others, all address family directly.
All of this would seem to make Finding Dory, a thirteen-years-later sequel, at least a little redundant. This movie does not need to exist, even by the watery standards of justification that inform any movie, very few of which need to exist. But Finding Dory has probably been made in large part because Pixar makes sequels now, which functions not just as a back-up cash generator for when an original movie like The Good Dinosaur doesn’t make a mint, but also as a home base for when a member of Pixar’s brain trust, in this case Andrew Stanton, has an unsuccessful foray outside of the studio, in this case John Carter. Brad Bird, having made Tomorrowland, seems to be up next for the homecoming-slash-chastening with The Incredibles 2 (Toy Story 4 may come first, but special provisional exception is granted for any Toy Story sequels, because so far they’ve always been great).
Of course, the Pixar team ensures that even a non-essential Finding Dory will try its best to pull some resonance and beauty out of a sequel’s balance sheet—which brings us back to the parenting angle, again. Here, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), the blue tang with short-term memory loss, has a flash of a memory of her parents (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy), and sets off to track them down. Bits of flashback illuminate the audience as they accumulate in Dory’s mind, piecing together how she was separated from her family in the first place. She also becomes separated from Marlin and Nemo, who have agreed to help her on her journey.
Finding Nemo was a great big ocean adventure, and Dory doesn’t try to recreate that vibe; most of the action takes place in and around the Monterey Marine Life Institute, covering perhaps five square miles. This movie is both smaller and more antic than the original; put together, it starts to feel a bit like swimming in circles. Wondering whether it may nonetheless be funnier than Nemo (it’s been a while, and I never held that particular Pixar classic in the same regard as, say, Toy Story 2, or Ratatouille, or Up, among other masterworks) serves as a suitable distraction from this circular, less adventurous story. So do the laughs themselves, derived more from animated behavior than chattery dialogue. The ocean, even scaled down to aquarium size, remains a strong Pixar side-character delivery system, and Dory offers some excellent new additions: a crafty, irritable octopus (Ed O’Neill) whose camouflaging renders him an almost Terminator-like de facto shapeshifter; a pair of territorial sea lions voiced with British grit by Idris Elba and Dominic West; and the latest in a long line of nonverbal Pixar birds (across their films, with so many talking and personable animals, birds tend to be vacant-eyed and a little dopey).
In the zippy deployment of a well-animated menagerie, there are shades of the gag-heavy Toy Story 2 (especially in the late-movie operation of a vehicle by creatures not designed to operate vehicles) and, it must be said, of Cars 2, which like Dory re-oriented itself around the beloved sidekick from the original film. Dory is a more durable subject than Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater, to be sure. Her chipper but sometimes fretful forgetfulness makes her an affecting heroine; Marlin and Nemo, affecting as they can be, have always struck me more as types than as fully fleshed-out (fished-out?) characters. In the flashback scenes with Dory and her parents, the movie reacquires some subtext, just some terminology away from surfacing: If the first movie was about parents learning to face their fears and trust their children, this one is about facing the fears that come with parenting a special-needs child.
It’s touching, but also a touch more mawkish than I’ve come to expect from Pixar. Unlike Inside Out, which placed such unusual, lovely emphasis on the importance and inevitability of sadness, or even Monsters University, with its bold suggestion that just believing in your dream is not actually enough to make it come true, Finding Dory is pretty much about how believing in yourself will make everyone happy. But before it gets there, and before it winds up with a particularly elaborate variation on the Pixar Chase (much-derided in some corners, but part of a rich cinematic tradition), there’s a profound melancholy in Dory’s attempts to remember herself. I just wish Finding Dory depicted memory with a more fluid sense of the uncanny; its treatment of those intangible feelings feels a little rote after the mental gymnastics of Inside Out. But maybe we expect too much, too often from Pixar. This is the third feature they’ve released in the past twelve months. Maybe it’s enough that Finding Dory is a pleasant companion to one of their lesser works, from that strange time when Finding Nemo qualified as their weakest movie.