The climax of Finding Dory centers around a high-speed chase involving cops where a septopus (an octopus that’s missing an appendage) named Hank is driving a car based on instructions from Dory, who watches the road from a make-shift fish bowl perched on the dash board. It’s a bit jarring when you consider that not only is this a Pixar film (yes, they’ve perfected a very successful business model based on suspension of disbelief, but this may be their biggest request of its audience yet), but that it is a sequel to one of the most emotionally cathartic, expertly written movies about family ever made. Does this movie really exist in the same universe that made us bawl at “it’s okay; daddy’s here”? Can Dory, a popular side character now promoted to lead, hold a film on her own without becoming obnoxious and overbearing? Can writers Andrew Stanton, Victoria Strouse and Bob Peterson write a story that isn’t just a glorified carbon copy of the original film? What if Finding Dory just another reaching, ham-fisted ploy from Hollywood execs to churn out a sequel to a recognizable name in attempts of making a profit?
By the time the film’s prologue segued into its title, any qualms I possessed regarding Finding Dory had completely dissipated. Finding Dory is a lovingly crafted and beautifully animated tale that stays true to the spirit of the original film while still bringing something new to the table. Stanton understands that the characters are what made the original film so successful, and (like his writing work on the Toy Story trilogy) creates scenarios that add more layers to these characters rather than having them remain stagnant characters. Dory, lovingly and seamlessly brought to life by Ellen DeGeneres, is particularly fleshed out. If Finding Nemo made her character a hit, Finding Dory cements the adorable, little blue fish with huge eyes as an icon. Stanton and his cowriters chart a clear, intelligent and emotional arc for Dory that will be just as involving for both the parents and the kids that were dragged along to see the sequel to movie their parents loved when they were their age.
Finding Dory does employ some familiar elements from its predecessor (familiar faces show up, the scenario of being taken by some unassuming humans in a boat is met with a self-aware cry of “not again!” by Marlin, and we are treated to at least half-a-dozen rounds of “Just Keep Swimming), but it never tries to recreate that made the first film so special. Instead, the film implement a new formula, tone and story while still existing in the same universe as the original film. Where Nemo was a simple story told on a sweeping, epic scale, Dory is a sweeping story told on a simple scale. Almost no time is spent traversing strange, new parts of the ocean. This was an incredibly wise choice on the part of Stanton and crew; we’ve already seen that story.
The title this time around is much less literal than Finding Nemo. After setting out to find her long-lost parents, Dory is taken away from Marlin and Nemo to the Marine Life Institute, a conservatory that focuses on the rehabilitation and ultimate release of sick animals. The bulk of the film takes place in the confines of the Institute, with Dory and some new friends working together to find out where she might be able to find her parents. The film is less concerned with tracking the physical location of Dory than it is about discovering her past, future and ultimately herself. For a good chunk of the film, Marlin and Nemo are designated as secondary, borderline tertiary characters, but their absence is never felt. They function perfectly within the confines of the story. Again, familiar faces do show up, but never to a point where it feels unnecessary and overindulgent. This is Dory’s story, and her star shines ever so brightly.
The tone of the film is much different from the first, a facet easily influenced by the fact that this is Dory’s story. In Finding Nemo, we see everything through Marlin’s eyes. We feel his fear, we get a sense of the bigger world at play, are just as wary and cautious as he is and we can even understand his occasional frustration with Dory. But Dory is in the driver’s seat this time, and everything is a bit more fun, a bit cutesier (the painfully cute short, Piper, that plays before the film helps set that up), unnervingly optimistic and beautifully chaotic. There’s a particularly memorable moment where we’re treated to an extended POV tracking shot through Dory’s eyes. It’s something that would feel jarringly out of place in Finding Nemo, but fits in perfectly with the kinetic energy on display here.
That unique tone extends to and is amplified by the film’s supporting characters, which features a wide array of wacky and lovable individuals. Hank, the aforementioned septopus voiced by Ed O’Neill, is particularly memorable. Stanton and his writers give him an arc that could easily carry an entire movie, securing his place next to the long line of memorable Pixar characters. There’s a group of hysterically funny sea lions, an echolocation-challenged beluga whale, a near-sighted shark, a frazzled bird, and adorable otters. Bill Hader and Kate McKinnon as a bickering married couple is particularly hilarious.
The animation on display from Pixar is at its most impressive here. Rays of sunlight beam down through the water. All kinds of fish deftly swim through plants and around each other. A violently hungry sea creature shows up that rivals the Anglerfish from the original film. A lot of animated films don’t seem too interested in telling stories through images, leaning instead on its dazzling world or spoken word to tell its story. There is one brief, dialogue-free shot in the climax of Finding Dory that tells an entire story and conveys everything we need to know about the characters involved.
In the age of cornerstone franchises and cinematic universes, Finding Dory almost seems like an inevitability. But what sets it apart from other sequels of its type is the palpable love and care that went into making the film. I enjoyed Minions, but I had no burning desire to revisit any aspect of that film after I left the theater. It’s been four days since I saw Finding Dory, and there are dozens of sequences I can’t wait to go back to again and again. Yes, some of the sequences are a bit over the top, but only slightly so. They fit in perfectly with the tone of the film, and ultimately add up to something (dare I say it) unforgettable. Pixar has once again created a film that transcends its genre. It’s not just great animation; it’s masterful filmmaking.
In the age of cornerstone franchises and cinematic universes, Finding Dory almost seems like an inevitability. But what sets it apart from other sequels of its type is the palpable love and care that went into making the film.