Saturday, November 19, 2016

Finding Dory (2016)

Directed by: Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane
Runtime: 1hr, 37mins
Animation, Adventure, Comedy
Google Play, Amazon

The nice thing about Pixar is the stories they tell find emotional resonance and don’t rely solely on cutesy characters -though they have those too- and mercifully they never force them into dance sequences set to pop music.


Finding Nemo tasked a nervous, over-protective, clownfish named Marlin (Albert Brooks) with taking on a grand adventure to find his lost son Nemo. Along the way he found unlikely friends willing to help him on his journey. One of them was Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a blue tang fish suffering from short term memory loss. In Finding Dory, the same general formula tasks Dory with going on a grand adventure to find her parents, who she suddenly starts remembering. And because Marlin and Nemo have now become surrogate family for Dory, they can’t let her go alone. Yet much of the film separates Dory from her clownfish friends, forcing them to try to track her down.

On her journey, Dory meets a new collection of likable characters including a vision impaired whale or two, a goofy bird, and a pair of lazy walruses. But the highlight is a curmudgeonly octopus named Hank (Ed O'Neill), who wants nothing more than to spend his days alone. His many arms, and camouflage ability makes him a helpful partner in her journey, and through their time together he even learns to like being around others.

Dory’s main mission, however, is to find her parents, which takes her to a fictional Marine Life Institute where they once lived. As she begins to revisit places from her childhood, words and images allow her to recall memories she’d long forgotten. They function as needed background information that allows us to empathize with her, but for Dory they serve as a map. Whether or not she actually finds her parents, she learns to appreciate the family she has in her friends.

There are plenty of examples in this film of Pixar borrowing elements from their past efforts -or from other movies altogether- some of which feel stale while others feel cleverly implemented. There’s a scene in which Dory explores the pipes between areas at the Marine Life Institute with the help of the aforementioned vision impaired whales communicating from a distance. It’s an obvious a riff on the Star Wars garbage masher scene (Pixar has been known to reference Star Wars in past films as well). And there is another scene involving a couple of characters accidentally finding their way into a small tank in which kids are allowed to pet, poke and grab whatever they can reach. It feels very similar to the chaotic scene in Toy Story 3 where the toddlers mistreat a collection of toys. The bottom line is, no matter how clever Finding Dory can be, it still feels very familiar. Having said that, the Pixar formula is still great, and it mostly works here as well, but it can be hard to shake the feeling that we’ve seen this all before.

The obvious themes Pixar is working with here include special needs children -or any child for that matter- learning to achieve their goals despite their flaws, and finding family among friends. And to that end, there is a healthy dose of Pixar’s trademark wit and charm. They still know how to move an audience and earn their laughter.

Considering the type of story being told here, Pixar shows a bit of restraint. To their credit, most of the emotional moments hit, but they’re never allowed to weigh down the proceedings. They don’t completely avoid obvious sentimentality, but it’s far from an emotional roller coaster. In fact, Finding Dory is fun and easy going more often than not. It even strays a bit off the rails from time to time. The final act even becomes something of a silly, over-the-top excuse to bring back all the characters we’ve met up to that point.

However, the main problem for most viewers will be the familiarity. The themes and collection of likable characters will satisfy most viewers, but I suspect it won’t be as fondly remembered or rewatched in the same way Finding Nemo has been. Much of that has to do with the film’s fickle relationship to its main themes. While the themes here are important, they often feel like they’re playing second fiddle to action sequences or comical gags - a surprise considering how good Pixar has been at doing the exact opposite.

On a technical note, Pixar’s excellent CGI just keeps getting better and better. This is a bright, beautiful world of colorful fish and sunny seaside locations. I can’t imagine animating water is easy, but it’s never looked so good. While this is, in no way, a bad sequel, I wish Pixar would concentrate their efforts on creating new characters and telling new stories rather than forcing old familiar characters to continue to find themselves.