Finding Dory

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A sterling Pixar effort that features the high craft we’ve all come to associate with the studio, but lacks the thematic depth that characterises the best Pixar productions.

Finding Dory is the rare sequel – one in which the concept stands on its own two feet, rather than being an flimsy excuse to milk the franchise cash cow. In Finding Dory, the star is the titular blue tang with the short-term memory loss problem, played by Ellen DeGeneres, who one day suddenly recovers long-buried memories about her family and decides that she has to go find them. So she sets off across the ocean, with Marlin and Nemo in tow, on another feature-film spanning journey to find them, and by, extension, her own uniqueness and identity emerge more strongly through this journey. Hence, Finding Dory.

The film’s a visual delight, as is usual with Pixar, brimming with bright colors, visual panache, and a kind of modernist optimism for ecological enlightenment and co-existence – the Jewel of Morro Bay Marine Life Institute is a utopia of well-intentioned aquatic rehabilitation and release. The film is kinetic, tautly paced, and full of gags (not all in the best of taste – see Gerald the sea lion). I’m anticipating the youtube comparison videos that will invariably pop up to showcase the differences in animation quality between Dory and its 13-year-old predecessor when the DVD comes out. And the new characters – Destiny the short sighted whale shark and Bailey the beluga with sonar problems – are just merchandising gold mines.

The film also has its share of strong emotional beats, centered around Dory’s recollections of her family and her yearning to meet them. Pixar really knows how to strike gold with this – appealing to the most primordial and ingrained of human impulses, in a way that makes their manifold characters seem so human, despite their decidedly non-human natures.

Despite the film’s virtues, however, it’s still not on the same league as Inside Out or Toy Story 3, in part because, from a thematic standpoint, Finding Dory doesn’t really deliver a universal message the way Pixar’s best films do.

Dory in the film is presented as an almost Gumpian figure – a protagonist with a form of mental disability, whose disability actually lets them perceive the world in a different way than others, and drives them to accomplish much more than ordinary people. The message here might be not to let your limitations hold you back, but that’s a simplistic and perhaps even dangerous message to deliver.

The film’s chief refrain, the one that motivates the characters is, “what would Dory do?” Dory doesn’t plan, doesn’t think ahead – the polar opposite of Marlin, the chronic worrier and overthinker. Her impulsiveness is a function in part of her memory loss – she can’t make plans because she can’t follow them, and therefore acts on pure instinct. One can see why that might not always be the best advice to follow. And yet, Dory’s impulsiveness is presented as her chief virtue, the source of her value to the team, but all her impulsive stunts only succeed because of good luck and cartoon physics. At least Forrest Gump’s feats were the result of his utter lack of self-consciousness. For Dory, impulsiveness is presented as unreservedly a virtue, when it shouldn’t. To me, this is an overly simplistic rendition of a thematic leitmotif, one that doesn’t quite live up to the sensitive and nuanced motifs seen in the best Pixar films.

The other part of the film that didn’t quite click for me was Hank the octopus. Although a great character in his own right his motivations didn’t feel particularly real to me – his desire to escape the ocean and get cooped up in an aquarium, his growing friendship with Dory – it seems too neat, like Hank is filling a narrative foil-shaped hole in the structure of the film. Why he suddenly changes his mind and ventures back out into the ocean is also a bit beyond me, and the proffered reason – that he’s finally made some friends – strikes me as a little twee.

These might  seem minor issues, but fine gradations separate the good from the great when it comes to Pixar. While Pixar hasn’t made a bad children’s animated movie, it has made some that aren’t as great a watch for adults. While Finding Dory is a triumph on many levels, it just doesn’t have that extra oomph that makes it a must-watch for adults.

Oh, but Piper, the short preceding the movie about a sand piper coming of age, is awesome in both animation and its heart.

I give this film: 4 out of 5 buckets

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