Many of this summer’s sequels have centered on a returning team. Another heist for a band of magicians, more monsters for turtles to fight, or what happens when political disagreements divide a bunch of best friends with superpowers. Finding Dory, however, takes a different approach. As the title suggests, Pixar has decided to make a full-stop character study out of the wildly popular comedic relief character from their 2003 masterpiece Finding Nemo. Often times, this can prove to be a disastrous approach. After all, the whole point of a comic relief character is that they act as seasoning to give the richer characters something to react off of. This is the convention that Pixar is determined to break here, and in doing so they may have just made the most authentically human film of the summer, about fish.
The story begins one year after the events of Nemo. Marlin (Albert Brooks), Nemo (Hayden Rolence), and Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) all live together. Dealing with Dory’s short-term memory loss has been hard on Marlin, but he’s been doing his best to both raise his son and look after her. However, that balance is thrown out of control when repressed memories of Dory’s parents (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) start to come to the surface. With only a California address as a clue, she begs Marlin and Nemo to come along on the search. When they arrive, they discover that Dory comes from an ocean life hospital/aquarium. Naturally, Dory gets separated from Marlin and Nemo and goes on a journey of self-discovery as she digs up more pieces of her past.
Pixar has made their name from wringing rich emotions out of abnormal sources. Finding Nemo was perhaps one of their strongest showcases, tapping into the primal connection a parent has with their child and the crippling fear of losing them. It would have been easy to simply tap into that formula again here, as Marlin is essentially a parental figure to Dory as well. Instead, Pixar takes a much braver and ultimately more rewarding path. Finding Dory is at its core a film about both having, and helping those with disabilities. Dory’s short-term memory loss, which was mostly played for laughs last time around, is taken for what it really is here. It’s something scary, something that makes her feel as though she is lost even in places that are most familiar to her. It’s wrenching stuff, especially once DeGeneres’ fantastic voice work is fused in. Having a comedian in this role is so critical because Dory’s funny and dramatic moments are entirely a product of timing, as her brain is literally a ticking clock.
What balances out the darkness of Dory’s arc is just how funny the supporting characters are. Brooks is given a considerably smaller role than in the original, as he and Nemo are relegated to a series of side vignettes where they explore the aquarium looking for Dory. These scenes could easily come across as filler, but they’re animated with such a frantic energy and are so well written that they often serve as perfect tension relievers. It’s a film that knows exactly how to bring on the smallest background characters, give them a couple great jokes, and then move on to the next scene. Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, and Ty Burrell are also wonderful as the friends Dory encounters, who each relates to Dory’s memory loss in very organic, touching ways.
Director Andrew Stanton, returning to animation after his live action misfire John Carter, proves what a natural talent he is in this medium. The pacing here is fantastic, ducking and weaving between absurd comedy, character moments, and dark drama in organic succession. The underwater world that he and the animators create is wonderfully visceral, lively and full in the more lighthearted scenes, and empty and overwhelming when Dory feels lost inside of it. The aquarium is also taken full advantage of, with several fun action sequences being pulled from spy, heist, and even horror movies. Although this is a sequel and was likely corporately mandated to some degree, it is clearly a labor of love given to us by people who love the language of film.
Finding Dory isn’t perfect. It hits several weak notes over the course of the journey, as it occasionally opts to play up the cute factor to a nauseating degree. However, when watching this film, it becomes easy to forget that these are animals. There are moments here that are deeply wrenching, and not in the typical Disney “because somebody dead” fashion. They hit because they feel so real, like interactions that were pulled right from an everyday family’s home, and put into the water. It has moments that are truly sad, even a bit disturbing, and doesn’t talk down to its audience in showing them these realities. Why? Because when the happy moments do come, they genuinely register and will likely make for some very enlightening discussions between parents and kids. To make something upsetting such as mental illness authentic, and yet relatable to children is the mark of a great kids film, and Finding Dory is just that.