How Ellen DeGeneres's little blue tang in 'Finding Nemo' just kept swimming to stardom

By Marc Snetiker
Updated June 16, 2016 at 12:00 PM EDT
Credit: Pixar
  • Movie

There’s scene-stealing, and then there’s swimming away with the whole dang ocean. That’s the arguable truth behind Ellen DeGeneres’ breakout Finding Nemo character Dory, the blue tang with short-term memory loss who did more than just help a woebegone clown fish, Marlin (Albert Brooks), track his lost son across the Australian sea in Pixar’s 2003 blockbuster. She won the hearts of millions. Although she can’t retain more than a few seconds of memory, it was Dory — and her perpetual mantra, “Just keep swimming” — whom audiences perhaps remembered most in the 13 years between Nemo and its sequel, Finding Dory (due June 17).

“She just keeps swimming, she just keeps going, she perseveres, and I think that’s something that resonated,” says DeGeneres, who championed a Nemo sequel on her talk show for almost a decade. “There’s just something that taps into the ethos,” the comedian continues, and perhaps that’s why Dory’s return to the big-screen — this time as a leading lady, on a herculean quest to find her biological parents — marks the final, fascinating hurdle crossed by a forgetful fish who, for reasons completely unrelated to ocean depth, may have never seen the light of day.

“We couldn’t figure out Dory for the longest time,” says Nemo and Dory director and co-writer Andrew Stanton. “Giving a main character short-term memory loss is the worst idea you could ever do. They can’t self-reflect. They can’t say and express how they’ve changed, and how they’re growing, because they don’t even remember. And so you have no way to track it.”

Stanton initially conceived of Dory in 1999 as a male fish (no species had been chosen yet) named Gill, an expert guide who would help protagonist Marlin cross the ocean. “I had no characterization, no nothing, and then I read this detail about goldfish having a memory of three seconds,” Stanton says, citing a 1990 Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Tom Hanks as Mr. Short-Term Memory as “the only thing out there, comedic-wise” that dealt with memory loss at the time. That specific version of amnesia, it turned out, was more annoying than endearing, but it was in the midst of Stanton’s continued experiments with the trait that the director, by sheer serendipity, heard the voice of DeGeneres echo from an errant episode of her sitcom, Ellen, playing in the background of his office. “She was a godsend,” he says. “A dream come true for a writer. Once I had Ellen’s voice in my head, it was a breeze to write for.”

Suddenly, a fish’s aggravating habit of forgetfulness transformed into DeGeneres’ endearing brand of speedy, overthinking chatter, and nebbish hero Marlin had a fast, funny scene partner. “Ellen’s shtick was always this changing [of] course while talking, and she always had this wonderful innocence. In a weird way, you could almost hear her big blue eyes in the way she spoke,” Stanton says. A subsequent trip to the Long Beach aquarium would introduce the director to the blue tang, and the species-less sidekick suddenly became… Dory.

Credit: Pixar

Ellen rescued Dory, and a strong argument could be made the for the inverse. DeGeneres’ career in 1999 was in flux: Her ABC sitcom been canceled in 1998, not long after she came out publicly in a groundbreaking episode the year prior. The stand-up comedienne’s attempts at a film career had fizzled (you remember Mr. Wrong, right?), and her romantic relationship with Anne Heche had become tabloid fodder. DeGeneres was only just on the verge of developing her now-famous afternoon talk show — an untested expedition into territory dominated by then-daytime queen Oprah Winfrey — when Stanton extended a friendly fin. (And to Pixar’s credit, “nobody even thought about or questioned” DeGeneres’ nascent marquee value or, as was a hot topic back then, sexual preference, says Stanton. “You’ve got to remember, we live in San Francisco.”) “It wasn’t that it brought my career back, but I wasn’t working at the time,” she says. “By the time [Nemo] came out, my show was on the air, but [in 1999] nothing was going on for me. It was a huge compliment and honor that somebody thought of me specifically for that part, and had my voice in their head.”

And that voice unlocked quite a lot — especially given how Dory’s memory loss, which once posed a narrative challenge, was now a lovable and immensely beneficial trait for Stanton to write. “I could use her like Batman’s utility belt or a Swiss army knife,” says Stanton. “I could make her come up with anything I needed in any scene. If I wanted her to suddenly be an authority on a submarine, I could. If I wanted her to suddenly know French, I could. There was no contesting what she knew.”

Elevating Dory to leading status, on the other hand, presented an incredible challenge for Stanton. How do you chart the emotional growth of someone who doesn’t even remember it? In the first film, Dory’s disability was largely used for bumbling comic relief, with deeper references to her tragically forgotten past treated as equally dispensable. “The only time we even hinted in the first movie — [when she says], ‘My family, where are they?’ — we do it as sort of a passing gag,” admits Stanton. But Nemo, he insists, was actually darker than audiences care to remember, and the director says Dory bore a large portion of the film’s trauma — whether or not you noticed. “The audience takes away a lot of smiling, laughing characters and fun and romp, but it’s all on top of this dark, intense pain, and that’s what made me feel there was one more movie left — because I knew that existed with Dory. Even though people leave the first movie feeling really good about her, I always knew that was under the hood.”

Not everyone else did. Stanton had to convince his Dory story crew (most of whom had not been involved in Nemo) that the cheery, optimistic Dory they knew onscreen had a backstory of almost Shakespearean misfortune — one he invented back in 1999 that got lost somewhere between the singing and silly whale noises. “I remember getting mad at one point and saying, ‘She’s spent her whole youth wandering the ocean alone. She’s a tragic character. She shouldn’t just be funny all the time, guys!’” Stanton recalls. “And they kind of said, ‘We don’t see her that way.’ And I realized, I have to actually dramatize that. I have to put that in the movie so everybody sees her the way I’ve always seen her.” (The result in Finding Dory is an opening montage that shows the young fish wandering the ocean for most of her childhood — a heartbreaking tableau that makes the beginning of Up look like the end of Cinderella.)

Audiences may be surprised by Dory’s new emotional heft, but producer Lindsey Collins hopes they won’t feel betrayed by it. “This could have gone very wrong if we had tried to fix her,” says Collins, adding that they hardly considered taking the narrative escape route of having Dory get her memory back. “Dory resonated with the world in a way that many of our characters haven’t. She represents something people really aspire to or connect to or take strength from. So we knew [fixing her] wasn’t right. Because that’s too much of who she is.”

As unsure as Dory herself may be of her own biology, other clues from the first film — like her ability to read, to a degree, and speak “whale,” to a perhaps lesser one — offered faint traces from which to fill in the rest of her cerebral treasure map. And the selective morsels of memory she does have aren’t just a film cheat, either — the National Society for Epilepsy charged Dory as “one of the most neuropsychologically accurate portrayals of an amnesic syndrome at the movies.”

The other unchangeable, unsinkable piece of Dory’s DNA comes from DeGeneres, who hopped aboard the sequel without even seeing the script. At a time of uncertainty in her career, Stanton had bet big on her, and she had no intention of letting him down now. “That will always mean something to me, that [Andrew] believed in me that much,” she says. Some things, you just don’t forget.

Finding Dory

  • Movie
  • PG
  • 97 minutes
  • Andrew Stanton