Directors: Andrew Stanton, Angus MacLane
Stars: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill
Beloved as Pixar’s 2003 smash Finding Nemo undoubtedly is, it’s unclear to what degree this belated sequel could be deemed in any way essential. The time between the two, for one thing, suggests the illustrious studio might be running short of ideas. Perhaps aware that this conclusion may be drawn, Pixar have recently taken pains to announce that, following Toy Story 4, they intend to make no further franchise installments. Still, for now we have Finding Dory to contend with.
I was skeptical going in, but credit to directors Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane for making it feel as though we’ve never been away. While the pre-film short Piper flaunts just how far CG animation has come in the intervening years, Dory sticks to the established aesthetic. But just because the details are comparatively simplistic doesn’t mean that they aren’t still impossibly attractive.
Dory even ties into Nemo by borrowing some archival footage early on, splintering off to focus on its titular character (Ellen DeGeneres); the simple-minded blue tang sidekick with a short-term memory problem. Her own origin story flashback is both sweet and surprisingly sad, notable for how often she has to excuse her disability when encountering others. Overcoming such self-imposed shame is just one of the life lessons imparted here. As is common ground for Pixar, their films are out to teach as much as they are to entertain.
It is revealed that Dory lost her parents long before finding Marlin (Albert Brooks), and this story follows her renewed attempt to reunite her family. With a little help from a few new friends – led by the scene-stealing ‘septopus’ Hank (Ed O’Neill) – Dory comes to believe her parents are trapped in an aquarium at a nearby marine life resort (a SeaWorld-esque environment), and so begins a courageous attempt to bust them out.
This set-up feels eerily familiar, not just from the prior film in this series but baring significant resemblance to foggy memories of at least one of the Toy Story films; if not in actuality then certainly in tone. Woody and Co.’s adventures have all felt like unlikely caper movies, and so it goes here. Pixar are in a groove with this kind of material. So, yes, there are funny moments and endearing new characters. There’s also swift, comic action and more than a few smart references (I for one was particularly charmed by a moment from Alien getting a particularly pointed nod, backed up no-end by Sigourney Weaver’s cameo as herself). As such it’s difficult to imagine them getting any of this wrong, exactly. And they don’t. Dory is exactly the kind of heart-warming, fun caper movie you’d expect Pixar to produce.
But that in itself is something of a downfall for the movie, though not a fatal one.
It all feels a little like ground we’ve already covered in some form or another, and,when this sensation arises, it’s hard not to compare Dory to the films that have come before it only to find it a shade wanting. It’s not significantly less than its fellows, but the familiarity itself breeds a sense of diminishment. The usual hefty wedge of charm keeps things ticking along very nicely, but it’s impossible to ignore the sense that Dory is, like so many of its ilk, a lesser sequel. It’s fine. It’s perfectly acceptable. And, on occasion, it’s even very, very good. But these moments arrive like sputtering peaks as opposed to part of a consistently maintained momentum.
From an animation perspective, one sequence does – haha – blow the others out of the water. Having suffered a particularly impactful setback, the camera goes first person from Dory’s perspective as she careers from one body of water to another until she lands in the swirling ocean. It’s a wondrous little sequence, and one that perfectly aligns with the emotional gut-punch that the character is supposedly feeling. It makes total sense from a storyteller’s perspective, and it’s a real trump card for the animators. It reminds the viewer of the kind of creative synergy so prevalent in last year’s Inside Out .
Come the end there’s an appealing goofiness to how events unfurl that it’s almost impossible to fight against, and why would you? I can imagine naysayers decrying these plot moves late on, moaning that things get too unrealistic. To those taking this stance I’d remind that this is a cartoon film about talking fish. Let it go. Is this sense of unbridled fun too little too late? Again it’s tough to say as it suggests falsely that Dory flounders early doors. It doesn’t. It just… does what it does.
Still, the message is a good one, and the new characters added here are by and large plenty of fun. Each is, in their own way, physically disabled but some – like Hank – have mentally disabled themselves also. They’re either frightened of trying or discouraged by past experiences. Dory’s madcap arrival in their midst serves as a reminder that there are always reasons to persist, to try, to give it another go. And also that, working together, we can all achieve more than we can alone.
Once you’ve got that, some decent laughs and the studio’s consistently high-grade animation behind you, one has to question what there really is to grumble about? Perhaps by raising the bar for themselves so frequently Pixar have simply made vaulting it harder to achieve. Here’s to trying though.