Finding Nemo (2003) was the fifth feature film released under the Pixar banner and remains the second most successful (after Toy Story 3) to this day, yet it took eight years — upon watching the film again in 2011 — for director and co-writer Andrew Stanton to finally come up with an idea for a follow-up. In a way that’s hardly surprising: Finding Nemo was a perfectly told story in many ways, full of wonder and emotion and adventure, and extending it seemed hardly necessary.
But Stanton did find inspiration in the supporting character of Dory, the blue tang fish with short term memory loss who was such a sweet-natured yet somehow sad sidekick and savior to Marlin, the clownfish searching for his lost son Nemo in the original film. And now Stanton – working with co-writers Victoria Strouse and Bob Peterson and co-director Angus MacLane – has given us Finding Dory, in which that little fish, voiced once again by Ellen DeGeneres, takes center stage and sets out on a journey of her own, accompanied by Marlin (voiced again by Albert Brooks) and Nemo (voiced this time out by Hayden Rolence).
Dory, who is living with Marlin and Nemo a year after the events of the first movie, is haunted by a childhood memory of her parents, revealed to us in a flashback that instantly recalls the source of Dory’s underlying sadness in that deeply emotional way that only a Pixar film can. Improbably convinced that her parents are still alive and that she can locate them – despite the fact that she forgets everything within minutes – Dory sets out for California from Australia, with Marlin and Nemo in tow. Her goal is Morro Bay, where the quest takes our friends to the Monterey Marine Life Institute and more clues about Dory’s parents’ fate.
Right from the get-go, Finding Dory is beautiful to look at. The wizards at Pixar work their usual glorious magic, especially with the depth, texture and colors of both their fishy characters and the aquatic settings. DeGeneres and Brooks slide comfortably back into their characters’ voices (Brooks neurotic, DeGeneres equally neurotic but cheerful, if a bit more irritating) that there’s an aura of comfort to the proceedings. And that is perhaps where Finding Dory begins to fall short of its dazzling and moving predecessor: the story feels familiar and also somewhat perfunctory.
Whereas Marlin’s ocean journey in the original seemed unimaginably vast and fraught with danger, mystery and the real possibility of loss, he and Nemo and Dory cross the Pacific in just a few minutes this time around, as if catching a bus across town. The bulk of the story takes place at the Marine Life Institute (a more animal rights-savvy substitute for the original Sea World-like concept), which is made to at first seem labyrinthine (and features an amusing recorded welcome from Sigourney Weaver) but is ultimately a single, rather small location that makes the film seem smaller.
Luckily, some of its denizens are on hand to provide a number of Finding Dory’s best moments, starting with Hank, the mimic octopus voiced by Ed O’Neill. Gruff and curmudgeonly at first, Hank warms to Dory and becomes her guide and friend when she is separated from Marlin and Nemo. He’s also not just an amazing character visually, with his ability to blend into his background, but a complicated one: while the Institute’s mission is to rescue injured sea creatures, restore them to health and release them back into the open ocean, Hank – who is missing a tentacle – is nervous about that prospect and just wants to nestle comfortably in a tank.
The other notable inhabitants of the Institute and its waters are a pair of irascible sea lions voiced by Idris Elba and Dominic West, a near-sighted whale shark named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson) and a beluga whale named Bailey (Ty Burrell) with faulty echo location. It is during these passages and despite the thin plotting that these delightful characters bring the movie’s message into focus: that shortcomings can be turned into advantages, and that no one is lesser for them.
It’s a lovely theme that strangely carries little emotional heft this time out. The biggest problem with Finding Dory is that the stakes just don’t seem as high as they did in Finding Nemo, a point brought home by the fact that a huge emotional moment – a climactic one, really – comes about two-thirds of the way through the film. Everything after that feels somewhat tacked on, including a rather needless and borderline ridiculous chase on a winding highway plus lots of jumping between tanks as our heroes and heroines attempt to avoid getting loaded into a truck that’s headed for a similar establishment in Cleveland. It becomes a bit too frenetic and tiring.
Finding Dory is entertaining enough (and the kiddies, especially younger ones, will be riveted) but that odd structure and the warmed-over feel of the story makes it seem like less an organic continuation of the original tale and more of a microwaved version of it with a few new ingredients sprinkled on top. You can and will enjoy it – we did — but you wouldn’t miss it if it never existed and it doesn’t feel as satisfying as the first time. Like Dory, you might forget about it soon after seeing it.
The feature is accompanied by Piper, a stunningly photo-realistic short about a baby sandpiper overcoming its fear of the water and learning how to fend for itself. It’s an effortlessly charming and adorable vignette that needs just six minutes to tell a far more poignant tale.
Finding Dory is in theaters this Friday, June 17.