Finding Dory is a demonstration of everything that Pixar does well, a bright and colourful treat for kids that offers enough depth for adults.
Pixar have one of the strongest track records in animation, even acknowledging recent missteps like Cars 2 or The Good Dinosaur. At its best, the studio is transcendent, producing films that speak as keenly to parents as they do to children, building entire worlds from pixels that feel so textured and real that audiences do not need 3D to end up lost in them. Inside Out is the most recent demonstration of the studio’s prowess in that regard, a film that deserved to be in the conversation as one of the very best movies of 2016.
Finding Dory is not quite at that level. The movie seems unlikely to be remembered as one of the studio’s finest efforts alongside Wall-E or Up. However, second tier Pixar is still fantastic. There is a solid argument to be made that Finding Dory is the film of the summer, a family-friendly treat that can appeal to whole audiences. Kids of all ages will react fondly to the colourful (and beautifully rendered) characters, while the movie also resonates on more profound levels for the more mature members of the family.
As with the best Pixar films, Finding Dory speaks to the idea of family and growing up. The film is held together by a beautiful metaphor about what it means to find a family, and about the idea of returning home as an emotional rather than a literal journey. It is a fascinating and powerful film, but also one with as much heart and energy as anything in the Pixar canon.
Finding Dory is fascinated with the idea of circles and returning, in a way that almost feels like a justification for constructing a sequel to Finding Nemo. In fact, Finding Dory is a film that is very much enriched by its position as a sequel to an earlier film, tying into this theme of memory and return. In terms of structure and plot, Finding Dory is itself a return to a familiar set-up. It is an attempt by a plucky fish (well, several plucky fish) to put a family (well, several families) back together when separated by tragedy. The film loops back even within itself.
Finding Dory is structured to move in a gigantic circle. Settings established at the start of the film return gradually over the course of the movie, creating the tangible impression of a memory slowly surfacing. “I’ve been here before!” Dory declares triumphantly upon hearing a familiar voice, and the film captures that hazy realisation quite beautifully. Using Finding Nemo as a template, and doubling back upon itself, Finding Dory intentionally feels like a hazy memory; something familiar without being recognisable.
This circular theme is mirrored in the film’s geography. At several points in her quest to reunite with her parents, Dory finds herself moving in literal circles. At a crucial moment while navigating an aquarium, Dory turns left instead of right; due to the layout of the building, she still finds her way to her destination. Dory wanders in circles navigating a complex system of pipes, but also finds herself trapped on a round-about towards the end of the film. “Maybe if I can see were we got on, I can figure out how to get off,” Dory proposes.
There is that circular movement again, that backtracking to find a way home. Finding Dory is a movie very built around these unlikely journeys, even more than Finding Nemo. This sense of repetition and doubling-back plays well with the theme of memory, but it also resonates with the film’s central meditations on family and home. Finding Dory dares to suggest that life is not a straight line, that there is not one correct path and that sometimes there are wrong turns and doubling back. Indeed, the film’s second big family reunion seems to suggest as much.
There is a lot of heart to Finding Dory. The opening scenes help to map out an origin for the eponymous forgetful fish, a child with “short-term memory loss” who wound up separated from her family and alone in the world. While lacking the raw emotional power of the introductory sequence in Up, there is something heartbreaking in this time-skipping montage, as Dory slowly begins to forget precisely what she has lost. She knows she is missing something, but cannot even remember what that is.
It is a set-up that is heartbreaking in a way that Pixar films so often are. It weaves a very adult fear into the back story of what is nominally a family film. One of most striking aspects of Finding Dory is the way that it captures the feeling of caring for a close relative with a neurological or developmental disorder, but in a way that never feels condescending or exploitative. Dory has a very serious disability, and Finding Dory is even more mindful of that fact than Finding Nemo was.
The film captures some texture of living in that situation, portraying a family that very clearly love and cherish Dory while still understanding the challenges that she will face in interacting with the world. It is a narrative choice that cannily mirrors the dynamic between Marlon and Nemo in the original, Nemo suffering from a physical rather than a neurological impairment. Finding Dory never diminishes its lead character. Despite Marlon and Nemo setting out to rescue Dory, Finding Dory seems to suggest Dory is just as (if not more) capable of taking care of herself.
However, these emotional beats never get too heavy. Finding Dory moves with the same energy (and optimism) of its protagonist, adopting much of the same structure as the original film. The movie never loses sight of its emotional or thematic core, but also makes sure to keeping things moving forwards. Dory and Marlon seem to bounce off new characters and set pieces on their adventures; highlights include small roles for a predatory squid and a sea lion voiced by Idris Elba.
The most memorable new character to appear in the film is an octopus named Hank. In keeping with the movie’s theme of disability, Hank is an octopus who lost a tentacle. (A “septopus”, Dory suggests. “I can’t remember, but I can count!”) Hank is very much a stock character, the cynical and grizzled veteran planning a jailbreak; although Hank’s plan ultimately and cleverly hinges on him breaking into jail. However, Hank is elevated by a fantastic vocal performance from Ed O’Neill, who really sells the inevitable “jerk with three hearts of gold” turn towards the climax.
However charming O’Neill might be, Hank represents the biggest problem with Finding Dory. Given the theme of memory and the positioning of the film as a sequel, it makes sense to revisit various plot elements and characters from Finding Nemo. However, there is also a sense that the story to Finding Dory owes a substantial debt to the “prison break” plot of Toy Story III. Both are films that are largely about cute familiar characters attempting to mount a rescue and escape from a community institution, exploiting that premise for fun set pieces.
This is not a massive problem. There are choices than Toy Story III when it comes to influences. Even then, “jailbreak” is such a recognisable plot template that it is hard to complain too much. At the same time, there a feeling that Pixar have already done a pretty convincing jailbreak film, and so it feels like something of a waste to return to that premise when there must be dozens of other interesting storytelling possibilities. Still, Finding Dory moves fast enough (and with enough charm) that this is never a major issue.
Finding Dory is great fun, and a reminder of just how great Pixar are. It is reminder that, even at the studio’s most fun, there is still a lot happening beneath the surface.