“Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming!” This is the sing-songy refrain of Dory, the titular character in Pixar’s Finding Nemo sequel, Finding Dory. Finding Dory is an adventure across the ocean as Dory, along with Marlin, Nemo, and a host of other aquatic helpers, searches for her parents who she has just remembered (she has short term memory loss, remember?). Before we dive in to just how the film measures up to its predecessor, let’s take a moment to ponder its place in the Pixar-verse, shall we?
Finding Nemo was part of a decade long streak of commercial and critical successes that Pixar had in the first phase of their feature film production that started with Toy Story in 1995 and arguably ended with the disappointing (to some) Cars in 2006. In between they had Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., and A Bugs Life (an underrated gem in my opinion, even if it is a blatant Three Amigos rip-off, which is in turn a Magnificent Seven rip-off, which is of course a Seven Samurai rip-off—but I digress). For a time, Pixar was defined by Woody, Buzz, Sully, Mike, Marlin, Nemo, and Dory. Even though I just rattled off seven character names, somehow they were all singular representations of the studio itself. Just the silhouette of any one of those characters was instantly recognizable and emblematic of both the studio they came from and the quality with which they were associated.
The creation of these characters were immortalized in the first trailer for Wall-E which featured a recollection by Andrew Stanton of a lunch he had participated in with the likes of John Lasseter and Pete Docter. It was at this lunch that the ideas for A Bugs Life, Monsters Inc., and Finding Nemo were born. And as members of that initial slate of Pixar films (which would come to include The Incredibles as well) they were part of a magical time for the studio, hit after hit. After the minor misstep of Cars (which is itself a Doc Hollywood rip-off–ok, I’ll stop) came another magnificent streak of films with Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3. All were commercial and critical hits. Then came a rough period with Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University. None of these is atrocious, but they all miss the mark and lack that usual Pixar magic. This time period (2011-2013) also saw the financially (but not creatively) disastrous 2012 Disney release of John Carter, not a Pixar film, but written and directed by one of Pixar’s magicians, Andrew Stanton who also happened to be the director of Finding Nemo, Wall-E, and now, in his first film since John Carter, Finding Dory. In the last year we’ve seen two Pixar films released, the masterpiece that is Inside Out and the puzzling and disappointing The Good Dinosaur. So, the question is this: with Finding Dory, will Andrew Stanton and Pixar find a way to reclaim that old Pixar magic, or have they made another disappointing, non-magical sequel?
To even pose the question that way is unfair. Masterpieces come around only ever so often. The run of successes that Pixar had in the late 90s and early 2000s was astounding and it’s pretty unfair to expect that they’ll knock it out of the park, or come even close to those other successes, every time. But when you’re an audience member who has come to expect great things when that bouncing Luxo Jr light pops up on the screen, it’s hard not to compare whatever new film they’ve made to their glorious old ones, especially when the new one is a sequel to one of the greats.
In many respects, Finding Dory measures up and is the equal to Finding Nemo. It’s a lushly animated and gorgeous film to look at. For a film set underwater it’s remarkably bright and colorful. The 3D doesn’t add a ton, but it certainly never detracted from the film, in my opinion. Andrew Stanton and his huge team of animators have done a stunning job bringing the look of the film up to date to match the quality of the animation we’re used to today while simultaneously allowing the film to feel familiar. Pixar has been inching closer and closer to photorealism in their animation (this was a high point for me in The Good Dinosaur—that water!), and Finding Dory ups the game even more, especially when the characters are out of the water or have surfaced. There were moments in this film when I thought I could just reach out and grab Marlin or Nemo. It was like they were right there for the taking. I don’t want to get side tracked too much on this photorealism element, but the short film before Finding Dory is not only charming and ridiculously entertaining, but there were moments when I thought they might have gone out and filmed stuff on the beach for it. THE SAND LOOKS REAL. Anyway, this film is gorgeous and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
The voice acting is also quite good. Ellen DeGeneres as Dory is as genuine and funny as can be. A character like Dory runs the potential to be annoying, but I think they strike just the right balance with her confusion and the hijinks/frustration that ensues. Albert Brookes is also fine, again, as Marlin. There are some great supporting voice roles in the film, especially Ed O’Neill as a gruff octopus, Kaitlin Olson (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) as a whale that Dory used to be friends with, and Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton as Dory’s parents. There’s also a mini The Wire reunion with Idris Elba and Dominic West playing two hilarious sea lions. A couple other voices you may recognize are Bill Hader and weirdly enough…actually, I’m not going to mention that one. Part of its charm was how unexpected it was.
Where the film didn’t quite measure up was in the emotional response that it provoked in me. I’m a blubbery mess by the end of Finding Nemo. The same can be said for Inside Out and Toy Story 3. Those movies hit me right in the heart and the gut and I have been known to cry like a little kid with a skinned knee while watching them. Finding Dory is certainly affecting. I laughed a ton, it’s very funny, I was sad when I was supposed to be, thrilled when I was supposed to be, but the BIG emotional beats weren’t quite as powerful as I would have liked or perhaps they could have been. Why? I’m not sure. It might be that an adult trying to track down her long lost parents is just not as emotional as a parent finding a lost child. The emotional stakes are just different. It might also be there’s a lack of thematic cohesion in the two central conflicts (Dory’s quest for her parents and Marlin’s frustration with Dory). Looking back on it, these two conflicts could have been drawn more closely together. Perhaps that was what they were going for, but it just didn’t quite work with me. This was something Pixar was really good at in the early days and is central to what makes Toy Story 3 and Inside Out so affecting.
Regardless, though, I think kids and adults will both really enjoy Finding Dory. It’s incredibly entertaining and heartfelt, and as I said, it looks amazing. While this film didn’t quite reach the heights of Finding Nemo or their most recent smash success, Inside Out, it’s quite good. Hopefully Pixar will continue on this path and, dare I say, just keep swimming. Finding Dory opens everywhere on Friday, June, 17th. You can probably skip the 3D, but make sure to stick around after the credits are over.