Pixar movies have been so consistently good for so long now that they carry the burden of inflated expectations. Anything less than a masterpiece is basically a disappointment. It may not be fair, but there it is. The Emeryville-based studio’s latest release, Finding Dory, would be a triumph for any other animation house. But for Pixar, it’s…fine. I want to be clear: A lot of people who loved 2003’s Finding Nemo will pay to see this new follow-up and walk out feeling like they got their money’s worth. But it’s not Toy Story or Inside Out or even Nemo. What it is is a perfectly enjoyable family film that’s comforting, familiar, and a bit slight, like one of those serviceable Lion King spin-offs that Disney used to ship straight to DVD back in the ‘90s.
Written and co-directed by Andrew Stanton (returning to the Pixar fold after the bruising live-action fiasco, John Carter), Finding Dory adheres to the maxim that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s basically the same tale told in Nemo with some chairs move around and a fresh coat of paint. Dory, that adorable, excitable blue tang fish, starts off the film as a baby who’s doted on by her parents. As voiced by Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton, Dory’s folks are caring but also more than a little concerned since their tyke suffers from short-term memory loss. The slightest distraction or break in concentration wipes her mind clean. Stanton’s deft storytelling lends weight to this set-up, so that when baby Dory gets separated from her parents at the beginning of the film, with no clue about how to find her way back home, it feels like more than just the fuse for a fizzy PG adventure. There’s real emotion. You feel every ounce of Dory’s panic and her parents’ desperation—something that any mother or father who’s taken their eyes off of their kid in a supermarket can identify with. Unfortunately, you also feel a sense of déjà vu. Dory’s quest to be reunited with her parents is more or less the same exact fate that befell poor little clownfish Nemo the first time around. It’s as if the movie has a case of short-term memory loss, too.
On her own, Dory grows up and her guppy-voice matures into the irrepressible, caffeinated stammering of Ellen DeGeneres—the heart, soul, and funnybone of the film. Like Robin Williams in Aladdin, DeGeneres has a stand-up comedian’s gift for being able to keep the film moving and speeding along, especially when the script hits some of its saggier stretches. Dory’s odyssey reunites her with little Nemo (now voiced by Hayden Rolence) and his gruff pop, Marlin (the returning sweet-and-sour Albert Brooks), who accompany her to California’s bustling Marine Life Institute, where she meets a bunch of new deep-sea good samaritans such as a cranky octopus (Ed O’Neill), a scatter-brained beluga whale (Ty Burrell), and a Cockney-accented sea lion (Idris Elba). Sigourney Weaver lends her tonsils as well (see sidebar) for what’s one of the movie’s slyest call-back gags.
Of course, there’s never any real doubt that Dory will find her way back into the loving embrace of her parents’ fins. Or that there will be laughs and stifled sniffles along the way. Still, one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises in a film with too few of them is just how resonant Dory will be for parents of kids with learning disabilities. To them, life can feel like a very lonely struggle where anxiety constantly reaches for you like a psychological undertow. If you squint hard enough, the film’s message to these parents is, You’re not alone. It takes an underwater village to raise a child (or a fish). Dory’s failing memory may be a handicap, but it’s also the key to her resilience. Is that an earth-shattering revelation? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, it’s hard to argue with. B