It almost seems as if the film was afflicted with its protagonist’s short-term memory disorder, because of which Dory would lose track of her thoughts right before reaching a conclusion to a story and restart a new yarn. Finding Dory suffers from a plot that just keeps swimming, swimming, swimming towards an endless series of false and increasingly implausible endings.
All of this would be maddening were it not for the subtle emotional depth—hey, this is a Pixar film, after all—and the incessant adorableness of the voice cast. So while an undeniably messy Cannonball Run of a fish flick, Finding Dory is most definitely, though laboriously, an enjoyable one.
Like the best of Pixar’s movies—specifically Inside Out, to which Finding Dory will likely find itself compared to the most, perhaps even more than Finding Nemo, because of its most recent transcendence—it’s startling in its deft handling of so-called “adult” subject matter without being reductive or patronizing to a family audience.
Dory’s recognition of her mental condition, the limitations it places on her, and the challenges she will have in overcoming it is heartbreaking, poignant, and even profound. The requisite Pixar tearjerker themes are all here—What makes a family? Where do I belong? What am I capable of? What is home?—and get solid two-Kleenex endorsements.
In fact, there’s so much maturity in Finding Dory’s emotional undercurrent, that it’s all the more a shame that it insists on floating so close to the surface with an overabundance of set pieces and unnecessary reliance on juvenile hijinks. For the love of Sigourney Weaver (more on her later) it doesn’t need them all.
Finding Dory opens with an origin story centered on a young Dory, animated to such precocious glory that the chorus of awws you hear around you are all purely involuntary. Her parents—voiced by Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton, to make you properly swoon—are coaching her on how to alert strangers that she has short-term memory loss and, most crucially, how to always find her way home if she forgets.
The Pixar gurus are masters at establishing character relationships instantaneously, and the amount of love between this family unit of blue tangs fills your heart immediately. You know, so that those same damn gurus can go ahead and shatter it.
In an epiphany moment, the severity of what it means to have memory loss hits young Dory. Terrified, she looks up at her parents, “What if I forget you? Will you forget me?”
As your eyes refocus through the tears, the narrative kicks into high gear. Those very questions get put to the test when young Dory is separated from her parents and she slowly forgets details about them and her home as she begs for help finding them. Eventually, she forgets that she’s even looking for them and that’s when we fast-forward through time, past the events of Finding Nemo to one year after the film ends, with Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), Marlin (Albert Brooks), and Nemo (Hayden Rolence, subbing in for the now-adult original voice, Alexander Gould) living together as a family unit.
When a school field trip leads to a discussion about each young fish’s home and where they came from, it dawns on Dory that she doesn’t know. In a bit of an existential crisis and a bit of “we need a plot for a movie sequel here” she decides it’s time to find them. She may not remember much, but she remembers that they’re…somewhere. And thus begins this ocean-set road trip adventure.
Through a series of That’s So Raven-esque sudden visions (in this case, memories), she starts to recall details of where she’s from—California! In a marine life institute!—and even her parents’ names. Marlin and Nemo accompany her on the journey following another of Dory’s heartwrenching pleas: “I can’t find them on my own. I’ll forget.”
While Dory, buoyed by Ellen DeGeneres’s effervescent and layered performance, and her memory loss played for loony comic relief when the character was scene-stealing second banana in Finding Nemo, the stakes here are different and more challenging now that the character is the film’s lead.
The script deals with Dory’s memory loss with an admirable amount of dignity, resisting the urge to exploit it for easy laughs and somehow managing to skirt movie-of-the-week schmaltz as the character begins to overcome her difficulties.
There’s very much a “we’re all capable of anything” and “our disabilities don’t define us” mantra to Dory’s arc, but there’s also an intelligence to the way it plays that grounds it. That intelligence, however, is sorely lacking from the film’s final act.
When Dory, Marlin, and Nemo arrive at the marine life institute where the blue tang lost her family, they get separated. Reuniting them by the end of the film—that’s not a spoiler, it’s an inevitability—involves so much deus ex machina that God himself might watch and think, “OK, that’s a bit much.”
Along the way, a new cast of supporting characters are introduced, each playing sainted roles in helping both families—Marlin, Nemo, and Dory as well as Dory and her parents—find each other again.
Ed O’Neil (Modern Family) is Hank, the ornery octopus with three hearts of gold but only seven legs. Trading on O’Neil’s later-in-life expertise, the begrudging affection the old crank feels for the spunky, forgetful young fish is another of Finding Dory’s emotional knockouts.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Kaitlin Olson and Modern Family’s Ty Burrell as whale shark Destiny and beluga whale Bailey, respectively, brim with wise-cracking warmth as major players in the otherwise implausible final act: that aforementioned truck hijacking getaway. And look out for Idris Elba and Dominic West to bring down the house as gruff sea lions whom Marlin and Nemo encounter on their search.
The shining comedy moment, though, belongs to Sigourney Weaver, who voices a recording (as herself) that plays on loop at the marine life institute, but which all the fish believe is divinely guiding them back to Dory’s home. It’s likely that not a child will have any idea why their parents are laughing uncontrollably at the frequent invocation of Sigourney Weaver, which might be the only strike against the bit of comic genius.
That, too, might be where Finding Nemo fans leave disappointed. Finding Dory is simply not as funny as its predecessor. It shows admirable deference for the film’s integrity that the creative team dialed back on Dory’s forgetful lunacy, sacrificed to make her a more emotionally engaging and, to be honest, tolerable central figure.
DeGeneres’s voice acting still ranks among the best ever, but this time because of the depth she gives a character that could’ve been a sideshow—a feat as impressive as the comedic performance she pulled off in the first film.
But the trade-off hurts the dynamic we’re accustomed to from that first film. As wingmen, Marlin and Nemo aren’t particularly funny. They’re great, fully realized characters, but hardly as riotously entertaining as the loopy interloper who knows how to speak whale. It’s the pitfall of a spinoff film that centers on a popular supporting character, and maybe even a cautionary tale against doing so.
When Finding Nemo debuted to critical rapture 13 years ago, The New York Times’ Stephen Holden wrote in his review, “The humor bubbling through Finding Nemo is so fresh, sure of itself and devoid of the cutesy, saccharine condescension that drips through so many family comedies that you have to wonder what it is about the Pixar technology that inspires the creators to be so endlessly inventive.”
The freshness, naturally, is missing in the sequel, and the inventiveness maybe needed to be reined in. No less than four times you might think the film is surely heading towards its end, only for yet another fork in the road—in the case of that truck, quite literally—to be introduced and explored.
Still, Finding Dory is a summer movie achievement, a surefire blockbuster juggernaut that treats its family audience, mostly, with respect, and which has something poignant to say about limitations and love. But maybe its biggest achievement will be its status as a pointed reminder of how truly special its 2003 predecessor really was.