Review: ‘FINDING DORY’s’ Waters Run Deep

Pixar’s sequel to 2003’s Finding Nemo flips the script, but keeps the poignancy.

I miss them. Do you know what that feels like?

–Dory

Sequels, especially long-awaited ones, have to work extra hard to justify their existence. The best do this by taking the story in a bold new direction (Empire Strikes Back, for example), by improving on the qualities of the first (let’s say, The Dark Knight), or by bringing new resonances to what we already know (Godfather Part II, anyone?)

Finding Dory, while not quite reaching that rarefied air (or even that of Toy Stories 2 and 3), is nevertheless a warm, funny, eye-poppingly gorgeous success, and leagues from the craven cash-grab some feared. Director Andrew Stanton, back in the animation fold after taking an unfair kicking for live-action debut John Carter (yep, I’m a JC apologist), didn’t take that success as a given. The film only got made, he says, because the Pixar team hit on a story that was too strong not to be told.

And that story, somewhat cleverly, is a mirror-image of the first film: this time, Marlin the clownfish must swim thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean to help Dory, his forgetful blue friend, find her family. However, that on its own would be a fairly paint-by-numbers and ultimately forgettable (sorry) affair, no matter how many goofy creatures and sight gags get thrown into it. So instead, Stanton (along with co-director Angus MacLane, and Victoria Strouse & Bob Peterson, who have story credits) takes Finding Nemo’s ideas about parenting and courage and digs even deeper, turning Dory‘s aquatic adventure into a thoughtful, often heart-breaking affirmation of special needs children, and the adults who never give up on them.

This is revealed in the film’s opening scene, where a very young, immediately huggable Dory is coming to grips with her condition. Her parents (Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton) love and support her unconditionally, and these early lessons are full of pathos that will be instantly recognizable for some parents. It’s important that Dory learns, no matter how many times it must be repeated, that she can do anything she sets her mind to. And while we don’t learn until later in the film just what ends up separating her from her family, it’s evident that the exuberance and relentless positivity she showed in Finding Nemo was as much her natural state as it was impressed upon her.

Ellen DeGeneres, who swam away with the first film, gets the showcase she has long deserved; in her capable hands, Dory is sympathetic, but not pitiable. She is childlike in her innocence, but not obnoxious. Dory is simply one of the best characters in the Pixar canon because she turns her weaknesses into strengths. It’s also very easy to understand Marlin (Albert Brooks, actually underrated in DeGeneres’s shadow), who may have learned important lessons in Nemo but finds himself unprepared for the day-in, day-out routine of keeping Dory on the track.

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When she gets the sudden burst of memory that drives the trio from their familiar reef to the Marine Life Institute on California’s coast, it’s once again Marlin’s neuroses that gets he and Nemo (voiced this time by Hayden Rolence) separated, creating twin “heroes’s quest”/”pursuit” narratives that refract the original’s. But instead of leaning on familiarity, Stanton’s script harnesses it to continue his characters’ growth. In the same way, the film weaves in callbacks to its predecessor not for easy laughs, but to give those moments new, poignant shading — all the more impressive because those ideas surely weren’t in Stanton’s mind when he made Nemo. His story team is just that good.

A few familiar faces return (make sure to stay through the end of the credits!), but several new ones make big impressions: Kaitlin Olson and Ty Burrell as “damaged” whales at the park; a questionably sane sea-bird; the disembodied voice of Sigourney Weaver in a terrific running gag; a pair of sea-lions played — to perfection, in their native accents — by The Wire buddies Idris Elba & Dominic West. (Elba is having an MVP year for Disney, having already serviced characters in Zootopia and The Jungle Book.)

But the biggest standout is Hank, a crusty old octopus septopus voiced by Ed O’Neill, and whose surprising mobility and camouflage inspires many of the film’s funniest moments. He serves as Dory’s reluctant guide and means of transportation, but is most remarkable as a technical accomplishment — the cephalopod is the most complex character in the studio’s history (one scene took two years to animate), the clearest sign of just how far their technology has come in just a decade. Nemo’s undersea world was extraordinary; Dory’s is downright miraculous.

There are flaws; the story rushes to get to the Institute, in exchange for a protracted, Möbius-strip climax that stretches to cover every point on the emotional map. The darkest moments are bleak even by “prologue of Up” standards; at one point, my daughter, who is just beginning to grapple with the actual messages of her favorite films, whispered that she “liked Finding Nemo better” — but when the film finally ended, she had forgotten she said it, nearly giddy with joy.

The best thing I can say for Dory is that it doesn’t spoil Nemo, but complements it, and deepens it. Marlin and Dory’s initial meeting, where she offhandedly wonders where her family is, has been retroactively transformed from a joke into something much more powerful. And by not magically restoring Dory’s faculties but allowing her to succeed on her own terms, Finding Dory makes a tender statement about inclusivity, empathy, and the potential that lies inside every child.

GRADE: A-

The film is preceded by “Piper,” a short film (directed by Alan Barillo) that not only pushes the boundaries of cuteness, but of photo-realism. It’s wonderful.

Updated Pixar Rankings:

1. Ratatouille
2. Toy Story 2
3. The Incredibles (my personal favorite)
4. Monsters, Inc.
5. Inside Out
6. Wall-E
7. Up
8. Toy Story 3
9. Finding Nemo
10. Toy Story
11. Finding Dory
12. Monsters University
13. A Bug’s Life
14. Cars
15. Brave
16. The Good Dinosaur
17. Cars 2


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