The very conceit of doing a sequel to 2003’s Finding Nemo is not a particularly great one, and given Pixar’s recent obsession with doing sequels, the financial disappointment with The Good Dinosaur and the fact that only one of their next four projects is an original property, it can even come off as desperate. And most movies based around characters who were originally comic relief/supporting characters aren’t very good to begin with. So, it’s a pretty big uphill battle for returning director and co-writer, Andrew Stanton to begin with. However, it turns out that the filmmakers had a real story to tell with their latest animation, Finding Dory.
The story shares some similar beats with the original film (and if we’re being frank, Pixar films in general) on the surface. Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) regains fragments of old memories and then convinces Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) to join her on a search for her parents, Jenny and Charlie (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy, respectively) where they bump into many colorful characters along the way.
Finding Dory is a bit of an odd beast, similar in the way Monsters University was. Both are films, while totally unnecessary, and do very little to justify their existence, manage to inject some interesting ideas and themes into their stories. Finding Dory is a film that deals in the struggles of children who have disabilities. It’s not particularly subtle about this metaphor as the film opens in a flashback sequence with a young Dory is being taught coping mechanisms from her protective parents before she ends up lost and forced to wander and eventually forget about her parents. It’s as emotionally devastating as you think it is, in fact, tears were shed literally minutes into the movie, which granted, is coming from someone easily susceptible to crying in movies, but that is still one hell of an accomplishment.
However, after the setup is made and the story really gets going, the film indulges in a far lighter and energetic tone than you’d expect given the heaviness of the opening. You can’t help but feel that it’s a bit of a misstep since the film bookends with genuinely great moments of drama, poignancy and catharsis, and there’s this entire portion in between said bookends that feels like it’s out of an entirely different film. That’s not to say the jokes and the various colorful characters are bad, far from it. Not all the jokes land, but most do and a lot of it comes from the delivery of a really solid voice cast. Ed O’Neill is a fun and delightfully weird octopus named Hank, Kaitlin Olson plays the near-sighted whale shark, Destiny, Ty Burrell shows up as Bailey, the beluga whale who thinks his echolocation ability has gone kaput. There’s many others who play a much smaller role, but they each leave a great impression. There’s a clam that appears for maybe less than a minute, but his cries for his ex-girlfriend, Shelly, had me in stitches.
There are things to like, but the story becomes too busy and hectic for its own good. It becomes a series of detached set pieces, each delightful and funny, but never feeling like it is serving a larger whole. The moments where it finally slows down enough to allow Dory’s self-reflection to happen, it ends up moving on just as quickly as it arrives. Though there are still pieces that feel like they could’ve easily been fleshed out through another draft or edit. For example, if you haven’t noticed by my descriptions, many of the side characters suffer from some sort of disability. Hank only has seven tentacles, Destiny can’t see very well and Bailey has troubles with his echolocation. The climactic car chase (yeah, I didn’t see that coming either), involves these characters getting past the things that hold them back as they work together to help Dory out. It’s kind of brilliant how it’s laid out, but it doesn’t have the big impact you think it would. On one hand, I like that the film doesn’t go out of its way to point out what it’s doing, but on the other hand, it seems like even the film didn’t realize the intelligence of how they connected characters to theme, so it doesn’t resonate. That plus the stretches in logic and narrative shortcuts regarding how the fishes seem to be so aware of the human world as the plot began hurling headfirst into the climax. Again, seems like it’s from a different movie altogether.
Finding Dory doesn’t reach the greatness of the first film, but in certain ways, it is still better than expected. The beginning and ending contain moments of sweetness, heart and humanity in the best, tear-jerking, Pixar-y way possible. The ambition to take a character previously used mainly for comedy and showing a more tragic and empathetic side to it is very admirable and when that is the focus, that is when the film works best. There are kids out there with mental illnesses and physical disabilities who are going to adore this film for its message of self-acceptance, and their parents will find so much to appreciate as well, and that is simply great. I just wish there was more consistency to the storytelling. It could’ve been smarter and tighter and potentially better than the first, but as is, it’s a good film and it’ll resonate with an audience who can appreciate it much more than I ever could. 70/100