Finding Dory finds Dory on the hunt for her long-ago-lost family. Marlin and Nemo accompany her, because they care about her, and it’s probably best not to let the perpetually forgetful little fish cross the wide ocean by herself. Their search takes them (quickly) to the California coast and an amalgam of a few Californian aquariums and oceanic institutes. Hijinks ensue.
And that’s really all the plot there is to this latest Pixar sequel. It is not a complicated story, but of course, neither was its predecessor’s, Finding Nemo, Pixar’s highest-grossing film of all time (adjusted for ticket price inflation). A sequel was, I suppose, inevitable. But both films do feature complex characters with very complex emotional arcs – more complex than what we see in most adult-aimed movie-fare.
The opening scene of Finding Nemo in which Marlin loses his wife and almost all of his children in a home invasion remains one of Pixar’s most harrowing and heart-wrenching scenes. It sets him up as an obsessively risk-averse father, and the film that follows patiently and thoughtfully explores the fear that feels essential to being a parent.
Finding Dory begins with a less shocking but still deeply sad scene whose emotional affect sidles-up to you gently. Dory’s short-term memory loss is one of the series’ running gags, but here the filmmakers unroll the melancholy aspect of her malady. Dory is shown to be homeless, cut off from her family and her past by her mental illness and, though blessed with an affable outlook on life, unable to find peace anywhere. I thought of the many searching souls on street corners holding cardboard signs asking for whatever help we can spare. I wished they could all find people to welcome them into community in the same way Marlin, Nemo, and the other fish on the reef make room for Dory.
Though Dory is a well-intentioned Blue Tang, her forgetfulness does wear on her friends from time to time. Finding Dory is honest about this aspect of mental illness as well. The film is as much about learning to value the unique gifts of “broken” members of communities as it is about the importance of family, and both Dory and her friends and family have to learn to love her not in spite of but because of her special qualities, to see the benefit they are to the community even though they cause complications at times.
Finding Dory is directed by Andrew Stanton, who also directed the original film (as well as WALL•E and John Carter). Stanton constructs Rube Goldberg-like films where both climactic action set pieces and climactic emotional moments are constructed bit-by-bit over the course of the film. Then—WHAM!—he hits you with the payoff. Think of the “Mine!” seagulls and Nigel the Pelican in Finding Nemo, set up to finally get Marlin and Dory to Nemo via an exciting chase through the Sydney harbor. And think of the repair, hand-holding, and spark of love at the end of WALL•E, a rich emotional moment built of symbols seeded throughout the narrative. Finding Dory has set-ups and pay-offs like this too, including an emotional moment so powerfully affecting, I expect it will be used in sermon illustrations for years to come.
Stanton doesn’t always navigate between the loud, fun action scenes and the quiet, poignant emotional scenes with great elegance. (The apotheosis of Stanton’s efforts at this point in his career is probably when the escape pod scene morphs into the dance scene in WALL•E.) They are usually separate scenes in Stanton’s films, not folded into each other, and the switch can feel jarring. But the scenes themselves are stellar, better than just about anything else we ever see at the movies.
So Finding Dory isn’t just an opportunistic cash-grab. Pixar continues to invest these oceanic characters with compelling, complex motivations and to tease those qualities out via entertaining, emotionally resonant plots. Plunging into Marlin, Nemo, and Dory’s world is a welcome escape on a hot summer day, and Pixar rewards you for whatever effort it takes to get to the theater. Catch it while you can.
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