How does one make a sequel to a beloved movie?
Go bigger? Go funnier? Do the same thing all over again? Or just throw every idea at the wall and try not to screw it up?
Finding Dory, Pixar’s long-awaited (wait, was it? Was anybody clamoring for this movie? Oh well) sequel to its winning fish tale Finding Nemo, is guilty of all those plans except the last. The set pieces are more grandiose, there’s an increased focus on jokes rather than a consistently emotional core, and the story has shifted slightly from a father finding his son to Dory finding her parents.
It is the obligatory “do it again, but crazier” sequel — but Pixar pulls that goal off with finesse and lively spirit.
The title Finding Dory is actually somewhat of a misnomer, as returning fish Marlin and Nemo generally know where she is for most of the film. A more accurate title might be Finding Dory’s Parents, but unlike Finding Nemo, literally locating lost fish isn’t the main thrust of the narrative. Instead, the story centers on Dory finding herself: both through uncovering her past and discovering who she truly is.
Before I start dissecting the movie, let’s get this out of the way: Finding Dory is a well-made movie, kids will enjoy it no matter what, and there’s nothing here that will disappoint people that grew up with Finding Nemo. It’s a good movie, through and through. But why isn’t it a great one like its predecessor?
It’s clear from the start that director/writer and longtime Pixar artist Andrew Stanton is giving the more introspective story a half-hearted effort. The beginning of Finding Dory far too casually delivers the horrifying existential revelation that Dory’s life had absolutely no purpose from early childhood until she met Marlin. But Dory has short-term memory loss — so, entertaining stuff, right?
Stanton’s more original films — like my personal favorite of Pixar’s, Wall-E — tell stories of personal development with grace and care. With Finding Dory, it’s hard to escape the looming sense that the writers were more interested in getting the sequel to Finding Nemo into theaters than wanting to tell Dory’s story. There is a real sense of character development on display here, seeing as Dory winds up a quite different fish as the movie swims on, but both the narrative and her self-realizations unfold mechanically.
Dory needs to understand an important aspect of her self? She suddenly remembers it with little reason, or someone outright tells it to her with perfect timing. Marlin and Nemo need to get from point A to point B? Cue an animal with a special ability to do just that.
Thankfully, every other piece of Finding Dory works to great effect, crafting what is still a solid follow-up to Finding Nemo. Animation has made great strides in the 13 years since the first film: the aquatic locales and creatures of the movie are gorgeously detailed (even more so in the opening short “Piper”, which had to have been created by some sort of animation witchcraft). The voice cast imbues every moment with tangible personality, including one vocal cameo that lends the movie a hilarious running gag.
Speaking of: while Dory’s search for her nondescript parents never reaches the emotional heights of the father-son connection in Finding Nemo, this sequel is considerably funnier than the original. Genuinely amusing lines litter the first two acts — but most impressive is an extraordinary finale that blends character, spectacle, and hysterical visual jokes in equal measure.
Pixar has always been about showing story instead of telling it. Finding Dory lives up to that method: if any part is likely to draw tears, it’s a single shot near the end that wraps up the movie’s themes beautifully. While the rest of Finding Dory focuses more on fun than heart, it’s still a Pixar sequel done well enough.
★★★½ (3.5 out of 5)