Finding Dory review: it isn't about family, it's about living with disability

The Finding Nemo sequel tells a similar story, with less pathos, more tentacles

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Pixar’s filmmakers aren’t immune to the idea that all children’s films need morals. They’re just creative about what they teach their audience. Too many kid-accessible animated films spout generic, well-worn tropes: follow your dreams, believe in yourself, you can do anything if you try. But Pixar’s Inside Out stands up for sadness as a helpful emotion. Up teaches grade-schoolers that they’ll never be too old for adventures, even once their partners and their youthful dreams die. And in 2003, Finding Nemo became a $900 million box-office smash by scolding overprotective parents, encouraging kids not to let their folks’ nervous fussing hold them back, and gently suggesting that disabilities aren’t the same as limitations.

The sequel, Finding Dory, doubles down on that last idea with an entire story focused on coping with disability and despair, couched in the usual Pixar antic adventure. Finding Nemo’s title character has one undersized fin and isn’t a strong swimmer, but adversity and a similarly fin-impaired role model build his confidence. Similarly, Finding Dory has a character with a debilitating handicap who develops coping mechanisms, gets help where she can, forges ahead when help isn’t available, and succeeds on her own terms. In a way, this is another “Believe in yourself and you can do anything” story. But by refining and focusing that message, writer-director Andrew Stanton and co-director Angus MacLane make it much more relevant. Many kids won’t notice the message: Finding Dory doesn’t explain it in patronizing detail. But it’s likely to hit home for the viewers who most need it, and identify most closely with the story.

Finding Nemo follows Marlin (Albert Brooks), a traumatized and nervous clownfish, on a transoceanic voyage to save his one surviving child, Nemo (Alexander Gould). On the journey, Marlin gets enthusiastic help from Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a Pacific regal blue tang with severe memory issues. Like Guy Pierce's Leonard in Memento, Dory only has short bursts of functionality before she forgets what she's doing, and whatever she just learned. Finding Nemo plays her condition for laughs, as she keeps forgetting who Marlin is, and what his son is called. (Fabio? Bingo? Harpo?) But she's desperate and vulnerable, too. Finding Dory digs deeper into her vulnerabilities, as a random set of associations triggers her memories of her parents (voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy). She doesn't remember where they are, or how she lost them, but just like Marlin in the first film, she's frantic to reunite with her missing kin. She quickly ends up on her own, and is frequently lost and confused about her purpose. Her determination keeps her moving forward, just as she advised Marlin to keep swimming in Finding Nemo, and bit by bit, the pieces of her past start coming together.

Finding Dory is Andrew Stanton's return to writing and directing after the overly ambitious box-office disappointment John Carter. With this film, he's back on the comparatively safe ground of Pixar principles: a lively celebrity cast, a fast-moving adventure full of chases and jokey repartee, and a basic humanism that persists even when none of the significant characters are human. Given the looseness of the plot — a one-thing-leads-to-another quest that periodically backtracks or goes in circles — the weight of the story is more on the characters than the plot developments. Stanton himself returns in a cameo as the whoa-dude surfer turtle Crush, Idris Elba and Dominic West voice a pair of helpful comedy-relief seals, and Kaitlin Olson (It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia) and Ty Burrell (Modern Family) play a nearsighted whale shark and an insecure beluga whale, respectively. But the film's breakout star is Hank (Ed O'Neill), a cranky seven-limbed octopus (technically, Dory says, he's a septopus) who helps Dory for selfish reasons. Like all Pixar's best grouchy old curmudgeons, he's full of one-liners and hidden empathy. He's also, naturally, an escape artist and master of camouflage, because real-life octopi are awesome.

It never hits the personal notes of 'finding nemo'

The colorful characters don't entirely hide the fact that this is a lesser Pixar film, coasting on Finding Nemo's popularity, and telling a too-similar story that isn't as ambitious or emotionally intense. Stanton's script is cleverly built around flashbacks that fill in Dory's history, but the frantic action between revelations is just killing time, and it rarely integrates organically with the rest of the story. Stanton frequently acknowledges Finding Nemo, especially by answering questions no one was asking, like where Dory got her "Keep swimming" song, her ability to read human writing, and her belief that she can "speak whale" by mooing her words. He picks up little touches from the previous film, like crabs using their pinchers to mow their underwater lawns, or Dory's habit of talking dream-nonsense in her sleep.

Finding Nemo

(Pixar Animation Studios)

But acknowledging a stronger film isn't the same as living up to it. Finding Nemo took the time to get viewers invested in Marlin and Nemo's relationship, and show why Marlin packed so much fear and need into fatherhood. While Dory's parents are portrayed as loving and supportive, with all the fears of a couple trying to give a special-needs kid the same carefree childhood as anyone else, they're a one-note abstraction. They never hit the same desperate personal notes.

Finding Dory's real emotional power comes from Dory's relationship with her memory condition. And here, the film is exceptionally smart and careful, both about dealing with disability personally, and about dealing with other people. Dory's forgetfulness clearly exasperates and frustrates Marlin, but the film never portrays that as Dory's problem; it's up to him to learn tolerance and kindness, with Nemo (now played by Hayden Rolence) as his conscience. And while Stanton sets up their dynamic so Dory can stand in for anyone fighting a handicap, the script never treats her as a class, or as the subject of well-meaning lectures. Again, the movie is specific and personal rather than didactic about its messages, which makes them go down much smoother.

The film's quick pace and vivid visuals help keep the story buoyant and kid-friendly. The animation is complicated and beautiful, even though there's no huge and obvious technological breakthrough on the scale of Sulley's fur in Monsters Inc., or the phenomenally realistic water effects in The Good Dinosaur. Hank the septopus has been billed as Pixar's most technically complicated character to date, and as always, Pixar excels in the little details, like the shiny, slick texture of fish that have just emerged from the water. But it's easy to miss the craft that goes into Pixar films because they're so seamless. Finding Dory takes place in an intensely colorful wonderland that sometimes gives way to inky blacks, or complicated murk. It's a fully absorbing world that's often hard to see as a series of computer calculations.

Finding Dory

(Pixar Animation Studios)

There's no villain in Finding Dory, but Dory's low self-regard and struggles with herself are scary enough, and her breakthroughs in learning to trust herself feel like enough of a victory. In Finding Nemo, Marlin needs to learn to let go of his growing offspring. In the sequel, Dory learns to hang on tight to her own family, but she also learns how to escape her anxiety spirals, and believe in her own capacity for learning, problem-solving, and courage. The former film is more about cooperation and collaboration; the latter is more about self-reliance. They complement each other well. Finding Dory isn't a vital addition to the Pixar canon, and it doesn't provide a full and balanced completion of the story, the way Pixar's Toy Story 3 did. But it's nice to see Stanton back in his element, especially when he's here to deliver such a helpful, important message in the process.

Note: Finding Dory screens with the wordless Pixar short "Piper," about a baby sandpiper learning to contend with the ocean. It's another in Pixar's series of near photo-realistic shorts, with its cartoony protagonist darting around a beautifully realized beach, looking into a film-worthy sunset, and getting swept under waves that look so convincing, the audience can almost taste the salt water and feel the grit of the sand. The story itself is nothing particularly special — here's that standard kid-film message about believing in yourself, being brave enough to try new things, etc. — but the characterization of the sandpipers is marvelous. These birds look like hyperactive, overclocked mechanical toys in real life, and their quick, jerky movements lend themselves to comedy extremely well. It's cute without being cloying, and it supplies a few giggles in the process.

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