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Pixar Sundays: Finding Dory (2016)

When it was announced Pixar was going to be going ahead with a bunch of sequels to their popular properties, Finding Dory was the one I was dreading the most. A completely unnecessary sequel to one of my favourite Pixar movies focussed on a character I liked, but could very easily be misused and rendered annoying, did not instil a lot of confidence. Luckily, Andrew Stanton came back to direct, which I’m sure is the main reason why Finding Dory, while not as good as the original, is easily the best non-Toy Story Pixar sequel.
Taking place roughly a year after the first movie, Dory is now living with Marlin and Nemo. However when she remembers her parents and how she was lost from them as a child, she, with the two clownfish, sets off on a quest to find them, slowly gaining back some long forgotten memories along the way. Once they reach the Marine Life Institute and are separated, Dory enlists the help of a grumpy octopus called Hank to help find the exhibit her parents are in, in return for aiding in his escape to an aquarium in Cleveland.
I admire that this film isn’t just a retread of the first. It looks dangerously like it might be for a bit, what with a giant squid replacing the angler fish for instance, but it very quickly changes course. Dory, Marlin, and Nemo reach the Marine Life Institute pretty quickly, so as to explore as much as the filmmakers can, the intricacies and opportunities in a SeaWorld environment. And they take advantage of plenty, both with seriousness and humour. The grungy pipes between tanks are characterized as a claustrophobic labyrinth of unseemly lichen and grime; while in a hilarious sequence, the touch tanks are portrayed as a horrifying trap of assault -essentially like the toddler room in Toy Story 3. There’s a lot of these fun and funny sequences, including a talking oyster and an escape via ground fountain
The animation is great, possibly better than the first, recreating the underwater environment and gravity superbly. There’s a lot more time spent on land in this movie, but the Institute looks nice enough that I don’t mind. Once again, the devil’s in the detail, as though there aren’t many new specific fish, they still look very accurate, and the movie really captures dampness well. I’m pretty sure the first did too, but I just think of moments like when Hank is about to drop Dory into the tank, and they look so realistically wet. The animation also succeeds in capturing scope, be it as an empty ocean backdrop to Dory’s solitude or a school of rays swimming by that just looked incredible on the big screen.
While the title of the first film was literal, this one is metaphorical. Dory’s not really lost, she’s doing the seeking. But the film cleverly intersperses flashbacks to her childhood as she gains back memories by association and in so doing is finding herself, where she came from and who she is. Dory really is handled wonderfully in this movie! I admittedly had doubt she could work as a protagonist after having been mostly comic relief in the previous film. But Stanton and Ellen DeGeneres took those couple serious scenes she had in Finding Nemo and ran with them for the duration of this sequel. She’s still funny, but much more focussed and just as endearing. DeGeneres is terrific, playing Dory with a new passionate drive. She also really captures Dory’s anxiety about her condition. This film really tackles the seriousness of her short-term memory loss, which is almost never played for jokes. Instead, we get a very gripping and emotional look at her struggle and how she’s been plagued with this condition her whole life. It’s terrifying to be a little kid lost from your family. It’s even worse if you can’t remember your way home, where your home is, or even who your parents are. It suddenly makes that throwaway line about her parents in the first movie that much sadder. You can feel her lack of faith in herself to even remember basic directions, and its really dealt with in a mature and impactful way. It informs Dory’s dedication, after having been alone so long, you understand how much it means to her to seek out her family. We learn a lot about her character too through the series of flashbacks. Little Dory is way too cute (I mean with the size of those eyes, they’re not even trying to hide the ploy), but it works very well for the film, and I love how the flashbacks are never in chronological order. It opens with her interacting with her parents, and in the next scene she’s already lost and looking for them, without explanation yet given for how she got lost. It’s interesting to see the origin of the “just keep swimming” song and her belief that she can speak whale. These flashbacks also prove how the movie understands short-term memory loss, and the associations that can trigger memory, as varying points in Dory’s journey parallel something in her past. And with each of these, she grows more confident and evolves as a character.
Marlin obviously and fairly doesn’t play as big a part in this movie, but it’s great to hear Albert Brooks back, and his relationship with Dory is still intact. There is a brief moment of him getting fed up with her, but it doesn’t last long, and Nemo manages to use it as guilt persuasion to prompt Marlin into dangerous circumstances. And that’s where I have a bit of problem with this movie’s portrayal of Marlin. He’s still very much a worrywart, overly cautious and distrusting of someone’s capabilities, this time Dory’s. But overcoming these very hang-ups was his whole arc in Finding Nemo! He’s seen where this attitude can get him, and others -doesn’t he remember what happened to Dory in the bloom of jellyfish? It’s not the worst, as he mostly just worries rather than overreacts, but it still feels like backpeddling his development. It’s annoying for me because Marlin still is one of my favourite Pixar characters, and they could have found ways to utilize him in this movie without retreating to old character traits. Nemo’s good, now voiced by Hayden Rolence (though Alexander Gould gets a nice cameo as a truck driver). He’s a little underdeveloped, but he did go through a lot in the previous movie. And I’m just very thankful that Nemo is part of the adventure at all and not sidelined. It’s more resonant to the theme of family. Bob Peterson reprises his role as Mr. Ray, as does Stanton as Crush, though he’s smart enough to only give Crush a cameo despite how popular a character he was. He knows story comes first, and probably realizes there’s not much to Crush’s personality anyway. Lastly, it’s nice to see Gill and the tank gang appear in a post-credits scene, having escaped one tank only to end up in another.
The new characters really work as well. Kaitlin Olsen is great as Dory’s childhood friend Destiny, a whale shark with near-sightedness; and Ty Burrell is good as Bailey an echolocation-deficient beluga (this movie really enforces its theme of disability). But it’s Burrell’s Modern Family co-star Ed O’Neill, who’s the stand-out as Hank. He’s a gruff, sarcastic octopus who’s afraid of being released into the ocean and super sensitive to human touch. He of course has a completely different personality to Dory, but they work off each other tremendously and form a believable kinship by the end. Hank’s earnest, and has a really good arc himself. Though his camouflage ability, while used creatively, is a tad overdone. There are also a couple comic relief seals voiced by Idris Elba and Dominic West, who have their own funny routine, a bizarre loon called Becky, and Sigourney Weaver once again voicing a computer (without a doubt proving WALL-E is canon).
Then there are Dory’s parents, voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy, who in the flashbacks are set up quite well. In the most important of these scenes, where it’s revealed how Dory got lost, there’s a great moment where she overhears their distress. They’re great parents: loving, concerned, and accepting, …and I think they should have died. I don’t mean that as heartless as it sounds. But when Dory finally makes it to the other blue tangs and learns that her parents left to find her in quarantine after she got lost and never came back, it’s stupefying. The following few scenes are incredible, as Dory gets light-headed and we see entirely from her point of view how she winds up back in the ocean. And when she’s back to square one all alone again, her desperation for something familiar to cling to is really effective, helped by the pace, mood, and music of the scene. But then she follows some shells and finds her parents, which feels like a cop out after that build-up. I get why Stanton and the studio kept her parents alive, so that she could get her emotional resolution and that her journey to the Institute wouldn’t be for nothing. But I think it would have been a much stronger, striking and unique message if they actually were dead and Dory was forced to reconcile that. Sometimes you go to extremes for something that isn’t there. And that that kind of loss is a natural part of life, an important lesson to convey. Maybe she could have heard from other fish what her parents wanted for her, been inspired, and used it as a springboard to realize Marlin and Nemo are her family now. I don’t know, the survival of her parents just felt to me like a forced happy ending. That I expected something more only goes to show how great of a job the movie was doing up to that point.
The climax also went over-the-top goofy in a way I didn’t feel fit. From otters stopping traffic with cuteness, to Dory and Hank commandeering a truck, and finally plunging it and all the fish on board into the ocean to “Wonderful World” of all things, it was really weird and ridiculous for a movie that kept its comedy consistent up till then. I guess Pixar thought the dumbest scene in Toy Story 2 was worth trying again, only bigger.
Yet I do feel Dory earned her contentedness by the end. She and Marlin look out onto the reef from the drop-off with a beautiful final parallel to her past of her being told she “did it”. And though I feel she could have earned this same moment without necessarily recovering her parents, it is nice and touching now that both characters have undergone great personal journeys. And like Toy Story 3, the shot reminded me why I love Finding Nemo. To cap it off with a corny albeit appropriate rendition of “Unforgettable” (this films’ equivalent to “Beyond the Sea”) is a nice place to leave these characters.
Much like Monsters Inc., there was no reason at all for a another Finding Nemo. But I think the key to what made Finding Dory really good where Monsters University came short was Andrew Stanton’s return as director. Even though it clearly wasn’t the original plan, he made Finding Dory feel like the natural second part of the story. It’s a good sequel that takes chances and goes to new and very mature places. There are going to be so many kids who relate with Dory’s struggle and the way the film as a whole portrays disability. And while I wish it went all the way, had a less distracting climax, and kept Marlin a little more consistent, I can’t deny it’s a more than worthy follow-up to one of Pixar’s greatest films.

Piper isn’t very good. I may be the only one who thinks this, but I feel it’s a very shallow short that only gets by on insipid cuteness. It’s about a baby sandpiper who goes out into the beach for food with its mother, only to experience a wave for the first time resulting in a fear of water. Piper overcomes it however with the help of a tiny family of hermit crabs teaching the little bird how to bury itself in the dirt as the tide comes in. When it does, Piper sees how beautiful the water looks from underneath and the fear is gone. Simple stories can be great, but this one feels directly taken from a nature documentary and not a particularly interesting one at that. While the animation is really good, the short utterly lacks personality, apart from a series of attempts to illicit ‘awww’s from the audience. And that feels just a little too manipulative and pandering for my tastes. Piper wouldn’t be anything without the cute factor, there’s no message it’s really trying to convey. I don’t think it’s one of Pixar’s worst shorts, but it’s just nothing. And I really can’t believe it won an Oscar over much more interesting and astounding films.

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