I know that I’m incredibly late to this party. (And incredibly late in updating this blog.) But I recently saw Finding Dory on a Transatlantic flight and feel compelled to respond to it. I suppose that’s a compliment, considering how dreary most of this year’s releases have been. But then I have to remember that even fools gold is shiny.
I didn’t see Dory during its original theatrical run. I usually avoid animated films in theaters for two reasons.
1.) The predominantly child audience would make me stick out like a sore thumb and
2.) Animated films, more than any other type of film, are not treated as works of art. They are treated as commodities that are designed to distract children and nothing more. I know this because every time I point out any flaw in a Disney movie, I inevitably hear, “It’s not FOR YOU! It’s for kids.” But that’s not how films are supposed to be judged. Yet most animated films are not works of art – they are enterprises designed to advertise toys, coloring books, and fast food to kids. And instead of demanding that our kids receive better treatment during this important part of their lives, we let the filmmakers get away with it.
It was the second item that had me concerned about Finding Dory when I heard about its release. Pixar has been the studio that has consistently produced some of the best work of the last 25 years. The original Finding Nemo isn’t my favorite Pixar film, but that’s the point. Most creators can spend a lifetime not making anything nearly as good as Finding Nemo, yet Pixar has surpassed it several times.
But lately Pixar has been taking the idea that films are the springboard for whatever trinkets the marketing department at Disney wants to sell. Cars has gotten a sequel and is getting another one. Monsters Inc got a prequel about a time nobody cared about. And Toy Story is getting another entry even though the narrative is clearly over. Finding Dory just seemed useless to me. Nemo knew to avoid overusing its cute characters and knew when to drag out its emotional moments for maximum impact.
Having said that, I’m pleased to say that Finding Dory is really good. Its animation is beautiful and its plot isn’t just a retread of the first one. It also introduces some great new characters that help show a new side of Dory.
But it also feels like Pixar is taking a step backward. Nemo worked because it knew that you can only make it rain once. Dory is almost packed with moments that rain. The filmmakers don’t know when to let up and those moments lead to plot holes and dampen the emotional impact of the film.
When Finding Dory works, it works very well. The opening drew me in as I saw a baby Dory talking with her parents Jenny and Charlie (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) about her short-term “remember-y” loss. It’s a cute moment that shows us how a supporting character can take the lead of the film.
But the opening scene also shows the weaknesses Finding Dory will not be able to shake in its run time. It would have been great if we only received the one flashback to set up the story.
We then flash to a grown Dory (a returning Ellen DeGeneres) suddenly remembers her family and goes on a quest to find them with Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo. She only remembers a name – the Jewel of Morro Bay. It leads her to an aquarium/habitat and leads her to be separated from her friends as she tries to get to the exhibit she was born in.
I really enjoyed the aquarium setting in the second act. It offered a way to drive home the environmental theme of the first film and gave audiences a slew of new characters. One of my favorites was Hank (Ed O’Neill), a misanthropic octopus who wants nothing more than to go to an aquarium in Cleveland. Hank represents everything strong about Finding Dory. Not only is he beautifully animated with fluid motion and some great scenes where he camouflages himself, he’s an interesting new character that had no equivalent in the original film. Destiny (Kaitlin Olsen), a nearsighted whale shark, also provided some new dimensions that weren’t in the first film. She dreams of freedom from her tank but is also scared of what lies outside. And best of all is my new spirit animal, Gerald.
But it made me wonder why Pixar even used the Nemo characters at all if they wanted to take advantage of new ideas. Marlin and Nemo are really underused. Marlin’s whole arc is about how he mocks Dory for her handicap – which was also his arc in the first film. Nemo is a non-character who spends the entire film sulking.
And Dory’s characterization is unusual. She supposedly has no short-term memory but frequently has flashbacks to her childhood. In fact, the entire film is built on moments when she can’t remember simple things…unless the plot requires it. These flashbacks quickly became grating as I wondered how Dory could even have them.
I caught myself several times during the film as I started to whine. Why should I complain when there are so many good moments in Dory? Even when the film wasn’t making the right emotional impact for me, I admired the skill the animators had. One scene late in the film that has Dory falling through a pipe in a POV shot is one of the greatest animated sequences I’ve ever seen. The water effects throughout the film are fantastic. And yes, I was emotionally invested in Dory’s journey. One scene that suggested Dory may never be reunited with her family had me nearly in tears. I was emotionally invested in these characters, which is the starting point to any great film.
Finding Dory is fantastic in many ways. But it also leaves me conflicted. Do I praise Finding Dory for exceeding my expectations or condemn it for not matching Pixar’s other output? In the end, I did what everyone else does in this situation – thought of the children. I remembered when I was a child and saw Toy Story for the first time. It was revolutionary. Kids are at an impressionable age and will remember those moments for the rest of their lives. I think we owe it to them and I know Pixar is capable of delivering. So maybe that’s why Pixar making what is only a really good film still feels disappointing to me.