It’s been sad to watch Pixar dive into its sequel period to fulfill the commercial requirements of its corporate overlords. The studio that once prided itself on being the most consistently original in La-La-land now needs to alternate between franchise fare and original work. Sadly, unless the words “Toy” or “Story” are involved, the follow-ups never quite live up.
‘Finding Dory’ was an inevitable project for Pixar. After all, ‘Finding Nemo’ was one of the studio’s finest films and also easily one of its most profitable. It seemed like a project destined to disappoint, but thankfully director Andrew Stanton’s return to Pixar following his dance with ‘John Carter’ is a worthy successor. It might not mine the same depths of emotion or climb the same heights of hilarity as ‘Finding Nemo’, but the beautifully animated ‘Dory’ is a worthwhile addition to the studios’ peerless library. Just don’t go expected a ‘Toy Story’ sequel. It ain’t that good.
Once again, the spirited and comedic tale of bonding opens with a moment of deeply moving parental crisis. This time we see Dory as a child struggling with her short term memory loss while her parents (wonderfully voiced by Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton) worry about her future. They invent games and songs to help Dory cope, but have the understandable loving concern of parents raising a child with a mental disability. We then follow Dory as an adult learning to adapt and even thrive with her disability with kindness and good humor. Eventually, she meets Marlin (Albert Brooks) in a reprise of their introduction from ‘Finding Nemo’, after which the movie finally jumps ahead into sequel territory.
Things have changed, though. Suddenly Dory is a more rounded character than the funny buddy joke she was last time, and even a tragic one. She longs to reconnect with her parents after a sudden flash of memory and departs on her own. Marlin and Nemo tag along in a replay of some sequences from the last movie, then get separated at Dory’s childhood home: a massive aquarium. With that, the separation anxiety quest begins anew.
‘Finding Dory’ certainly has an element of sequel/remake syndrome. It’s one of those sequels that forces a new story rather than having a logical next chapter to tell. The movie suffers a little hiccupping to get the plot machine up and running and also some repetition of old gags and ideas simply to keep the thing afloat. However, by sensitively playing into Dory’s mental condition as a means of drama rather than merely cheap gags, co-writer/director Stanton at least delivers a new emotional core to mine. ‘Finding Nemo’ might have been big, beautifully animated and funny, but it worked on a deeper level thanks to the profound and truthful exploration of child loss and parental anxiety surrounding its recovery process. By exploring the challenges of parents and adults coping with mental disability, Stanton finds a new emotional minefield here and milks it for some deeply potent sequences that are completely (yet welcomely) unexpected in a commercial sequel.
Beyond that, the Pixar animation wizards dream up some stunning and ambitious new visuals that surpass what they were capable of achieving on the last go-round. (A fisheye POV sequence is particularly impressive.) The humor comes fast and often. (One joke involving a certain iconic 1980s actress only gets funnier on repetition.) Returning stars Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres are as strong as before, while new additions like Ed O’Neil as a surly octopus and the likes of Idris Elba, Kate McKinnon and Bill Hader in small roles provide a deep world of memorable characters. It’s a delight from start to finish. Eye candy, giggles and tears, the movie follows the Pixar formula to a T and succeeds in the ways that the studio’s efforts always have.
In fact, the only real downside to ‘Finding Dory’ is repetition. Not only does the movie retread through old ground from ‘Finding Nemo’, it also sticks so closely to the Pixar playbook that it has few surprises for familiar audiences, especially during the action climax that follows the emotional climax. Still, it’s unlikely that the children in the target audience will notice any of those repeats of greatest hits. Their parents likely won’t either, given that the sequel represents some of the best and most nourishing family filmmaking that will come along this year. Only the film critics and Pixar nerds will really care, and even they’ll only be mildly frustrated. After all, they’ve seen the horror of ‘Cars 2’ and this is a masterpiece compared to that big blunder. The trauma of experiencing that Larry the Cable Guy vehicle trumps any of the traumas explored for emotion in the ‘Finding Nemo’ series. If anything, these movies can help all us Pixar fans get over that betrayal.