America’s favorite fish are back! (Sorry, Charlie.) Finding Dory is a rare sequel in which the main character returns but is relegated to a sidekick role and gets fewer lines, like the third Hobbit movie. Seems unfair that Ellen DeGeneres’ agent can beat up superstar Nemo’s agent, but that’s how it goes in Hollywood.
Short version for the unfamiliar: It’s a tale of family loss, a dangerous swim across the Pacific, a scintillating underwater menagerie, clashes with humans who have no idea what’s going on, and Ellen DeGeneres and Albert Brooks probably writing and rewriting their lines on the fly. That’s also how the sequel goes.
This time around, Nemo’s flighty pal Dory finally remembers she’s been looking for her lost parents for years and resumes the futile search based on clues from fleeting flashbacks. The quest takes her, Nemo, and Marlin to the coast of California and the Marine Line Institute, basically a walking ad for an awesome high-end aquarium near you. Our Heroes must swim, sneak, bounce, squirm, fly, or negotiate their way from one water container to the next in hopes that Dory’s mom and dad are still alive and still hanging around the human sideshow after all these years.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: The breakout lifeform is Modern Family‘s Ed O’Neill as Hank, a loner octopus who can mutate his colors and design like Randall from Monsters Inc., who can stay out of the water for minutes at a time (like a real octopus can, mostly, though not usually to perform animated antics or move movie plots along), and whose fondest wish is to be left alone and not be around family. He’s the anti-Dory in a lot of ways.
We first meet Dory’s parents, Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton, in scenes from her childhood. Other new aquarium friends include Kaitlin Olson (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) as a nearsighted tiger shark, and Modern Family‘s Ty Burrell as a beluga who thinks his echolocation is broken. Fellow fans of The Wire can thrill to costars Idris Elba and Dominic West (Stringer Bell and Detective McNulty!) as a pair of gregarious yet territorial sea lions. Between this, Zootopia, and Shere Khan in The Jungle Book, Elba is gunning to be animation’s Man of the Year.
Among the first film’s alumni, Up co-director Bob Peterson returns as Nemo’s teacher Mr. Ray, and of course there’s John Ratzenberger, whose cameos have gotten harder to spot with each successive Pixar film.
But wait! There’s more! See near the very bottom for spoilers.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Dory’s constant forgetting was played mostly for laughs in Nemo, but now we learn it’s not her species — it’s just her. Her origin story reveals her shtick is actually a disability. Her parents train her to apologize to everyone she meets, and to recite the phrase “I have short-term memory loss” until the offended looks give way to polite sympathy. (It takes a lot of drilling.) Her mom secretly worries whether Dory will ever be able to function on her own without their supervision. Later in the film, when Dory determines her forgetfulness is partly to blame (in her mind) for her separation from Mom and Dad, the guilt weighs heavily and unfairly upon her. But Dory at any age doesn’t give up, and neither do her parents.
Beyond the example set there, the film’s other most-repeated moral, whenever Dory faces doomed situations with no hope and no alternatives, whenever it looks like the writers wrote her into a corner to force an ugly outcome, her motto is “There’s always another way.” Never give up. Never surrender. Never stop never stopping.
Marlin and Nemo try to keep up with her, but make time for one short subplot to themselves in which Dad, in a moment of frustration, says something off-the-cuff to Dory that he realizes too late is needlessly cruel. Nemo, ever the brave youngster, rightly calls him out on it. It’s a good reminder of the dangers of speaking without thinking, and of mocking someone for something they can’t help.
Underlying theme throughout: aquariums are cool and pretty and super humane and please don’t ask us about Blackfish or even Free Willy. All the fish with speaking roles love being there except Hank, whose problem has nothing to do with abuse or homesickness, and everything to do with wanting to go live like a hermit in silence for the rest of his days.
Nitpicking? Several shenanigans later, by the end of the movie Dory’s Memento pivots cease as her adventures more or less cure her disability. There’s no moment when she turns to the camera and whispers, “I remember EVERYTHING.” She just…stops forgetting. If only every disability could be cured with a transpacific swim and a steady flow of adrenaline.
And if every octopus were as capable and adaptive on land as Hank is, it wouldn’t be hard for octopi to move into our neighborhoods and begin demanding citizenship. The stunts he performs to help Dory move from water-point A to water-point B are funny to watch but verge on Looney Tunes turf, up to and including one of the most preposterous action climaxes in Pixar history since the one that had dogs flying airplanes.
So what’s to like? To be fair, that climax is the most hilarious scene in a reasonably entertaining film that sometimes coasts on its rep like a compulsory brand extension. Though the Nemo template is never invisible, the screenplay (with at least four credited contributors) reveals its mysteries in slivers along the way to each character on an as-needed basis, not always chronologically, resulting in subtle shifts in what they and we know about why some things happen the way they do. The occasional unexpected surprises keep this from too slavishly copying the original.
DeGeneres and Brooks are no more and no less funny than they ever were (i.e., funny parts are funny), though Brooks is in shorter supply this time, and DeGeneres doesn’t quite match his gravitas in the serious scenes. Dory the adult sidekick-turned-star still feels whimsical and slight even when her eyes are drawn at their saddest. The darkest sequence of all works not because of her, but because of an abrupt shift in POV, tone, focus, cinematography — basically, to portray rock bottom, the movie has to transform into another movie altogether.
Animation art lovers should be satisfied with the underwater worlds, all as breathtaking and magical as we’ve come to take for granted from Pixar. Even the brief shots of the “Open Ocean”, the aquarium’s prize exhibit, look like they took decades to craft. Beyond that, if you’re fine with lighthearted frippery, Finding Dory is a perfectly competent episode of The Further Adventures of the Nemo Gang, another instance of Pixar prolonging the magic of a smash hit, always continuing to challenge their staffers’ artistic limits but not necessarily achieving Top-10 status in the internet’s next wave of “Pixar Films Ranked” listicles.
Redundancies aside, the best reason for Finding Dory to exist is young Dory. She’s heartbreaking to watch with her oversized eyes, her guileless persistence, and her irony-free vocal performance by actual kid Sloane Murray. I wish we’d had more powerful moments like the ones where Mom and Dad try guiding her through the difficulties of basic conversation, or the clever setup of seashells as a poignant symbol of unconditional, never-ending love. Li’l Dory is an inspiration to follow every second she’s on screen. Wacky Ellen introducing us to our new favorite merchandise all-stars, not exactly as much.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is a scene after the Finding Dory end credits. In fact, the end credits stay lit up from name #1 onward till it’s time for the Disney castle logo and the Luxo Jr. hop. For those who fled the theater prematurely and really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…after the fun game of “Where’s Hank?” that runs behind the first wave of names, the rest of the credits guide us on a tour through various underwater scenes that look like the kind of screen saver people used to buy with money instead of grabbing as freeware. Once the names run out, the camera surfaces and rejoins the two sea lions, McNulty and Stringer, on their precious rock till a bit of temptation lures them off. Seconds later they lose their spot to silent, addlepated Jerome, eager to take his turn as king of the hill.
Meanwhile, floating nearby are seven faces familiar to Nemo fans: the refugee fish from the Australian dentist’s aquarium, in cameos by six of the seven original actors — Willem Dafoe, Allison Janney, Brad Garrett, Austin Pendleton, and NewsRadio‘s Vicki Lewis and Stephen Root. (The seventh, Pixar animator/actor Joe Ranft, who died in 2005, is replaced here by his brother Jerome.) Somehow this tiny but mighty school has made the journey from Australia to California in the same plastic bags that they were sealed inside thirteen years ago — same water, same limited oxygen supply — without asphyxiating or being swallowed whole by larger predators.
Seconds after they each get a line, they’re captured by the same keepers who brought Dory inside the Marine Life Institute, where they’ll presumably fight each other to see who headlines the third film. My money’s on Dafoe.