Alongside the studio’s impeccable standards for creating a full-fledged story filled with nostalgia, the emotional urgency of some of Pixar’s best work always lied in a heavy shot of regret. WALL-E summoned our shame and culpability by creating a bleak dystopian future caused by unsustainable consumption. The Toy Story series and Inside Out earned tears through beloved, but largely discarded (or shelved) memories of childhood. Up nailed the deep ache of a remorseful widower through a story of emotional reconciliation. And Finding Nemo pulled heartstrings through a parent-child story many could feel the rush of: an overprotective father, due to an innocent fault of his own, unknowingly pushing his child in harm’s way.
Following that up 13 years later with the instantly lovable sequel Finding Dory (yes, Pixar does sequels well too), the studio brings Andrew Stanton back to the director’s chair of an animated feature (with co-director Angus MacLane) and does things a little differently. Instead of coating the entire film with a loudly pronounced, tear-jerking sense of guilt, Stanton (also the scribe) sparsely furnishes it with a controlled amount of melancholy throughout. This scantiness is partly demanded by design, as Finding Dory— which makes a heroine out of Finding Nemo’s endearing sidekick – forms around the darling blue tang fish Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), searching for her parents while suffering from short-term memory loss. Dory has no choice but to live in the moment, weigh all her in-hand options intuitively and in real-time (which she has very little of usually) and make fearless decisions in bits and pieces. We usually only know as much as she knows and remembers, which isn’t much or often. So while Finding Nemo trails on urgent, frenzied parental guilt, Finding Dory swims in waters less crucial and more voluntary. This scheme doesn’t necessarily lead to a typical Pixar movie which usually jerks a steady stream of tears through swelling emotions. But it still adds up to something quite deep and poignant about life, through Dory’s sweet hopefulness in embracing her limitations and difference. Turns out, “Just Keep Swimming” isn’t just a cute, catchy song in the life of a character who disarmingly laughs in the face of daily challenges others don’t have to deal with and unfairly discredit her for.
We are led into the story through Dory’s childhood (in which you will get your necessary dose of “impossibly cute”). We learn that she was born with her short-term “remember-y loss” condition (as adorably called by young Dory) to two very nurturing and loving parents that affectionately raise their special-needs child (a touching dimension of the story, handled wonderfully). They build her confidence, and teach her to practice reasonable caution in difficult situations. They help her with tips to empower her self-sufficiency in face of danger. Their parenting paints a very different picture than Marlin’s (Albert Brooks), and his repressive methods from the previous film in handling his son Nemo’s special needs (a defective fin.) Marlin discourages and forbids what Dory’s parents patiently explain.
But a second of distraction proves to be long enough for Dory to wander off in the unfriendly waters of the ocean as a helpless infant. Several years after she meets Nemo and Marlin, Dory suddenly remembers in fragments that she once lost her parents. Partly with what she can piece together and partly on a hunch, she decides to swim across the ocean to California with Nemo and Marlin. By the time she arrives and is greeted by Sigourney Weaver’s dreamy voice on the speakers of a coastal Marine Life Institute (that rescues and rehabilitates underwater life), she remembers she was born in the Institute. With some luck on her side, Dory befriends a 7-armed chameleonesque octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill, the voice of one of Pixar’s best side kicks to date) after being accidentally separated from Nemo and Marlin. In exchange of Dory’s newly awarded tag that would guarantee her a spot in the Cleveland aquarium, Hank agrees to help her out. Also on their team is Dory’s childhood friend Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a witty whale with problematic eyesight.
Not everything goes, ahem, swimmingly of course in Dory’s quest to reunite with her friends and parents. But like her, we take things one at a time, and hope our little heroine swiftly digs herself out of any trouble she’s gotten into, using only her up-to-the-moment judgment. Things get a little out of hand with distractingly fast and frantic action happening underwater, through the pipes of the Marine Institute, and even on solid ground (the least effective parts of the film), but thankfully, the final act bounces back from it all.
Despite some minor faults, the gorgeously rich underwater imagery and imagination makes this less urgent sea adventure a thoroughly worthy watch. Stanton’s script twists and turns a couple of times: especially in the second act, he ruthlessly teases our (dreadful) anticipation of Dory’s eventual separation from Nemo and Hank with several “Oh God, this must be it!” moments. Its finest sequence comes towards the end, when Dory, once again left alone, activates all she’s got to lead herself towards a spot less scary than the previous one in a step-by-step string of actions that require immediate decisions. He even brings subtle attention to environmental issues by showing a trash-filled ocean in multiple scenes, yet never quite delves into that dimension of the story somehow.
Finding Dory manages to find something new and profound amid recycling the formula and gimmicks of its predecessor. Dory’s quest might not feel as crucial as Marlin’s – partly because her disappearance seems to be no one’s fault – , but it isn’t any less beautiful or relatable either.