It is well understood that Pixar sequels without out “toy” in the title are never as good as their predecessors. Where Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 elevated their franchises, both Cars 2 and Monsters University proved that, y’know, one movie really was enough.
Into this current swims Finding Dory, a sequel to 2003’s Finding Nemo that pivots focus to that film’s comedic sidekick, putting the memory-lapsed blue tang at the center of her own adventure. That was the same gimmick employed by Cars 2, which placed the tow truck Mater in the lead, but thankfully, Finding Dory is working from not only a superior premise to that of the Cars series, but with far more enjoyable characters. (Sorry, John Lasseter. No one will ever love Cars as much as you.)
Picking up events only a year after Finding Nemo, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) is joining Nemo (Hayden Rolence) on school trip to witness sting-ray migration when memories of her parents are triggered. Startled by memories she never realized she retained, Dory – along with Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo – embark on yet another cross-ocean journey to reach “the jewel of Moro Bay, California” – the Morro Bay Marine Life Institute. Turns out, Dory was a fish born in captivity to two loving parents, Jenny (Diane Keaton) and Charlie (Eugene Levy), who through Dory’s periodic flashbacks we learn took great care in doting on their daughter, patiently working with her short-term memory loss.
Dory is soon separated from Marlin and Nemo upon reaching the marine institute, finding herself sent to quarantine and tagged for an aquarium in Cleveland. There she meets an octopus, Hank (Ed O’Neill), who agrees to help Dory find the Open Ocean exhibit where her parents reside in return for her departure tag, wanting nothing more than a life “in a glass box, alone.” The pair make their way through the institute as best they can for a memory-deficient fish and cranky, camouflaging
octopus septopus, occasionally helped along by a near-sighted whale shark, Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), and a beluga whale, Bailey (Ty Burrell), who struggles with echolocation. For their part, Marlin and Nemo makes friends with a pair of lazy though territorial seals, Fluke (Idris Elba) and Rudder (Dominic West), enlisting the help of Becky, a ruffled and unintelligible loon, to reunite with their wayward friend.
Admittedly, Finding Nemo was never a Pixar film I felt really begged for a sequel. Its story was heartfelt, endearing, and entirely self-contained. There were no lingering threads to explore (unlike, say, The Incredibles), and any reason to return to the ocean appeared more like a cash grab than Pixar actually having a meaningful story to tell. Well, I was wrong. Though Dory is just about as close as Pixar gets to a one-note character in Finding Nemo, once given the bulk of the screen time she transforms into one of the studios’ most interesting characters, buoyed once again by Degeneres’ earnest portrayal.
Her backstory is equally sweet and sad, having struggled since birth with “short term remembery loss,” as the young Dory (wonderfully voiced by Sloane Murray and Lucia Geddes) explains. Dory’s disability, which in Nemo was played for laughs to great effect, and is done so here, too, becomes a fascinating depiction of just that – living with a disability. Depending on the situation, the fact that Dory can barely remember anything for more than few seconds can be either painfully tragic or uproariously funny, but it’s always given the respect of being a real condition with which she must struggle with on a daily basis. In this way, Finding Dory may just be one of the best films about living with a handicap, normalizing it in a way that never feels forced or like an afterthought.
Finding Nemo was such a sensation is large part because of its wildly entertaining cast of characters, and though Finding Dory has some truly memorable additions, the supporting characters never quite reach the heights of say, Nemo’s aquarium gang from the previous film. That being said, with someone like Hank the octopus, Pixar pairs the optimistic Dory with her polar opposite, creating an odd couple that is just a delight to watch. Hank is cantankerous and easily frustrated by Dory (moreso than even Marlin), but soon finds himself won over by her determination and, unsurprisingly, the two form a firm friendship. (Is Finding Hank next? Who knows, but consider me interested.)
From an animation standpoint, Pixar delivers the same spectacular imagery we’ve all come to expect of their films, with the ocean and its creatures rendered beautifully. Yet, moving much of the action out of the sea and into a marine institute does zap some of the wonder, though the familiar territory (for humans, anyhow) does increase the number of comedic beats, really milking what’s possible with a literal fish out of water scenario. Its madcap ending, for instance, is a hoot if utterly unbelievable.
Finding Dory is that rare sequel that while it may not be as stunning or ground-breaking as its predecessor, still proves itself a worthy film and stands on its own merits. And honestly, besides its tangential relation to Nemo, it’s hardly fair to call the film a true sequel. Instead, Finding Dory is an equally entertaining and emotional adventure with Pixar’s ever-growing marine cast.