The problem facing Pixar’s animated sequels, more so than its big studio neighbours, is that by making the emotional journey the be-all and end-all, rather than whacky hijinks and endless gags (which support rather than lead in Lasseterland), they run the risk of cheapening the much-vaunted substance of their endeavours through repetition. Characters must learn and then re-learn lessons, unnecessary additional arcs having no option but to reinforce the initial, primary one, because the characters reached a perfectly sufficiently satisfying place originally, thank you. As more than competent as Finding Dory is, there’s really no need for it, and so it’s inevitably a less-effective enterprise, even as it labours points that, through sheer breathless verve, the original never became bogged down in.
Perhaps that will set it apart as a positive for some viewers, though. I tend to find underlining the pay-off is never wise, particularly when, as here, it’s all about re-submerging itself in the importance of the familial bond (but of course, it’s Pixar), only now reaching new, unrestrained levels. Nemo in the original was a cute fish, but not toe-curlingly so. He was at least proactive, had get-up and go, even if that made him something of a Hollywood kid cliché in itself. But baby Dory here, as we see ad nauseam in flashbacks, is a horrifically adorable, tiny, big-eyed coochy coo, accompanied everywhere by syrupy music and adoring parents (except when she gets lost).
It’s crassly manipulative gurgly-goo-goo on Pixar’s part, designed to infantilise the adult Dory (who may have been nursing a disability, but was nevertheless a grown-up nursing a disability in the first movie). It’s perhaps inevitable that Pixar should make this choice, that for narrative purposes we are all essentially children deep down, but getting there means retro-fitting Dory as a character (much more successful on the cutesy front is the short preceding the film, Piper, in which a baby bird discovers the wonders of water).
She had, after all, made sufficient a break-through in Nemo that we could happily leave it at that. Now, though, she is given a memory arc, indulging a well-meaning but laborious message about perseverance and overcoming disabilities (or learning to live with them; however, it’s difficult not to see Dory’s process as curative, which may rather muddle the takeaway for those wishing to see the movie as reflective and considered in regard to those with disabilities). If Pixar’s strength is the emotional through line, it can also sail close to being their weakness at times, because it can leave the content feeling curdled or overbaked. Everyone is special, everyone needs family; worthy themes, but they’re somewhat shoehorned into Dory’s thematic bearing – she’s not a kid searching for her parents, but she must be reduced to the state of a child for Finding Dory to work, because Pixar has limited narrative avenues.
Balanced against that is some highly potent imagery. If Nemo got behind shock value as part and parcel of its rollercoaster ride, it only once emphasised the stark terror of Dory’s situation, as Marlin briefly leaves her and she finds herself entirely alone and without bearings. The opening sequence of Dory, overextended as it is, really digs into this existential nightmare, but it is undoubtedly overextended, Pixar putting heartstring-pulling over straightforward adventuring entertainment. Of course, before both these things comes profit, hence the very existence of the sequel. Although Stanton may have been feeling, subconsciously or otherwise, that he needed to justify such commercial crassness by engraving the thematic importance of the picture more than he otherwise would. This is certainly the closest Pixar gets to plumbing the philosophical depths outside of Wall-E’s opening chapters, even if such ruminations never come close (thankfully) to the nihilistic resignation of, say, The Plague Dogs.
So Dory takes a while to kick into gear, but despite the time it takes, it doesn’t ever fully justify that set-up, simply because what it has isn’t sufficiently fresh or different. The device of Dory learning and remembering is essentially a crutch borrowed from the tail end of the first movie, and used to increasingly desperate effect (whenever an insurmountable obstacle is faced, Dory gets a rush of memory). The Marine Life Institute, meanwhile, is very much a case of brainstorming to come up with a sufficiently different setting. While the measures conjured to traverse dry land are ingenious, there’s a nagging feeling throughout that this has been artificially, slightly awkwardly devised, such that it lacks the almost casual finesse of its predecessor; Finding Dory is inelegant.
On the other hand, the willingness to go off reservation and explore broader devices and constructions, embracing cartoon physics at their giddiest, is highly appealing, even if it may put some off (it certainly creates a dissonance, when one compares and contrasts that doomy opening with the climax’s hijinks of an octopus driving a truck the wrong way down a freeway). Indeed, as many have observed, the scene is incredibly similar to the finale of the broadly cartoonish The Secret Life of Pets. I preferred Dory’s version, mainly because I cared more about what was happening (Pets is full of great incidentals, but its central duo are kind of sucky, unfortunately).
Another hugely appealing aspect of Dory is that, for all its overloading with trademark Pixar thematic content, Stanton and Victoria Strouse have gone to admirable lengths to come up with a range of new characters. I expected, with the sight of the Stanton-voiced surfer turtle in the trailer, this to be a little too laurel-resting in treading old ground, but Crush and a brief appearance by the eagle ray are pretty much all there is. And the new faces are very nearly up there with the cast of the original.
Top of the list comes Ed O’Neill’s aforementioned octopus (or septapus) Hank, whose camouflaging and stealth traversing of the institute’s confines are consistently inventive and often hilarious. He’s also agreeably cantankerous but touchingly genuine, like a less anal, more upwardly mobile version of Marlin. There’s more of Dory speaking to whales, via Kaitlin Olson’s myopic whale shark Destiny (so not really a whale, then) and Ty Burrell’s beluga Bailey, who has lost his echolocation facility. Then there’s Becky, a common loon, who very much is one, and sea lions Fluke (Idris Elba; he’s having a very busy year for voice work, is Idris) and Rudder (Dominic West, so it’s a Wire reunion; perhaps adoring parents will break out the box set for junior). As for returnees Brooks and particularly DeGeneres*, asked to stretch for the role, they’re note-perfect.
The sea lions do show up the danger of making the sentiment elsewhere so achingly sincere, however, as a portion of viewers have complained about their treatment of less than fully au fait sea lion Gerald. I found the sequence very funny, and it didn’t cross my mind that it might be read as mocking those with autism. Possibly those with monobrows… Even considering the charge levelled, Gerald does get the rock to himself, and more than that, he’s one of the most appealing, memorable characters in the picture: a likeable oddball. If Rudder and Fluke were supposed to be our heroes, I might concur there’s an issue, but they’re simply supporting players with an unsavoury attitude to one of their brethren.
Also worthy of note: the talkative clam, Sigourney Weaver, the daredevil crossing of a footpath via water jets, and the touch tank. The latter might be the best of possible call backs to the original’s horror of indelicate nippers, as the fish live in moral dread of being child-handled by enthusiastic little terrors. It’s an interesting choice too (eco-conscious?), that the aquatic palate is often muddy and murky, in stark contrast to the bright and sparkling Nemo.
This is Andrew Stanton’s fourth Pixar feature (co-credited here with Angus MacLane), and the first after the ignominy of John Carter’s diversion into live action. It’s certainly unable to scale the heights of Wall-E and Finding Nemo, and I’m not sure it’s even as satisfying overall as the (underrated) A Bug’s Life. Stanton’s too professional for the picture to be less than serviceable, but for all his sterling attempts to justify the return to the well (or ocean), it can’t help but feel like a retreat that wouldn’t have happened if not for that bad day on Mars. Finding Dory is, fortunately, much closer to the honourable Toy Story sequels than the whatevers of Cars and Monsters, but by the time Finding Marlin arrives the “brand” will be well and truly diluted.
*Addendum 17/07/22: That’s Ellen “frazzledrip hoodie” DeGeneres, of course.