2003’s Finding Nemo is an undisputed classic; and I feel as though that’s both A) obvious and B) worth stating regardless. Pixar did the incredible when it took it a seemingly run-of-the-mill family picture about talking fish and made it into a monumental cinematic event. The story of the clownfish Marlin’s quest — aided by the forgetful but lovable regal tang Dory — across the ocean in search of his son Nemo truly felt epic, while the growth in their relationship stood out as one of the better and more insightful parenting lessons in recent memory. It was the rare kind of family film that was equally appreciable to both old and new; a diamond-in-the-rough picture that truly was for-all ages. Though there’s really no wrong choice* for the Best Pixar Film in their now legendary body of work between 1995 and 2010, I’d argue that Finding Nemo really does stand out among the rest. Even more so than, say, Toy Story, this film is the quintessential embodiment of Pixar’s mission statement and one of the finest movies ever made.
As such, I have been suspicious of Finding Dory. Since the first movie told a complete story, I believed that any sequel — no matter how good or bad — to such a landmark film would be completely unnecessary; and, given Pixar’s somewhat less remarkable track record as of late, I wasn’t convinced that they could make a picture that would come even respectably close to the quality of the first one. Still, I was intrigued enough to want to see just what exactly a sequel to Finding Nemo would be like. Unfortunately, as I alluded to in this post, I lacked the ability to do so in a socially acceptable manner. Luckily, a friend of mine bailed me out in that regard (my thanks go out to that person; you know who you are), and I finally got to see Finding Dory this weekend.
And as it works out, Finding Dory is a pretty good movie. While it’s still an unnecessary sequel and not as good as the original; it is never the less a smart, entertaining, and thoughtful picture in its own right; and one that successfully carves out a unique existence for itself and justifies its production.
The filmmakers were prudent enough to not try to make a sequel that repeats the beats of the original, only with Dory instead of Nemo (based on the title, I had feared that this might be a possibility). While the broad stroke structure of a fish looking for family member(s) is lifted from the first film; that’s really about it. Dory’s story is truly different from its predecessor in terms of scope, goals, locales and the lessons learned at the end. This is not a film about the journey the way the previous entry was; rather, it takes place mostly in one location. This is not a film whose plot is started by our heroes getting forced into it by outside forces the way they were last time; rather, they all embark of their own free will this time. Most significantly, this is not a film about strained parent-child relationships like the last one was; rather, Finding Dory, is first and foremost, a parable on disability.
Yes, the concept of disabilities is at the heart of this story. Dory’s forgetfulness — which was fairly amusing back in 2003 — is framed much more seriously this time around, turning out to have been the cause, in part at least, for her separation from her family. Some of the scenes depicting flashbacks of Dory as a child with her parents are really quite sobering; and her inability to remember is no longer the laughing matter it once was. Furthermore, Dory’s isn’t the only disability being addressed. The vast majority of the film takes place at an ocean institute — where Dory believes her parents are — that rehabilitates injured animals; and so quite a few of the creatures we meet suffer from one ailment or another.
I must admit, it’s fairly ambitious for the filmmakers to go this route. Tackling disabilities is a touchy issue, particularly in how to impart the right lessons to younger viewers; but it’s pulled off really well in the movie. Every character suffering from a disability learns ways to manage or overcome it, often through team work, while less tolerant characters learn to be more understanding over the course of the movie. That was inevitably the direction this picture would head in; but it’s executed organically, rather than bluntly, as is so often the case with this kind of subject matter.
Part of why it’s organic is that we really feel for these characters. Marlin, Nemo, and Dory are still very familiar to many fans of the original film; and this picture only serves to make them more intimate. Most of the newer characters work great as well. Dory’s parents are instantly likable and relatable the first time we meet them, while a whale shark friend of Dory is quite endearing. In particular, I was quite fond of a stealthy, grumpy-but-good-hearted octopus voiced by Ed O’Neill. Yes, folks, Al Bundy is in this movie; and he’s great fun to watch, especially in the interactions between him and Dory, his companion for a good chunk of the picture. This movie allows us to become attached to and care about its characters in a very emotional way, and that allows for the discussion on disabilities to be as meaningful as it is here. We truly are sorry for them when they struggle, we want them to succeed, and there’s a great sense of elation when we do. It definitely brings the film’s message — that those with disabilities still have worth and can succeed in life — home.
Apart from that, the film boasts the usual Pixar-calibur of movie-making. The dialogue is appropriately witty, the imagery is bright and colorful, the music is good, and the plot rarely becomes boring. That’s not to say the movie is perfect. There are some pacing issues and a few instance of forced fan-service callbacks to the first film that don’t really work; and the movie does make a handful of odd narrative decisions. These include how completely idiotic every human being is in the film — to the point where no one in a crowded area notices an octopus moving around in broad daylight — or how the journey from Marlin, Dory, and Nemo’s home in the Great Barrier Reef to California– much longer than Marlin and Dory’s journey in the first film — takes next to no screen time at all. But those are more nitpicks than they are legitimate criticisms; and they don’t really do much to weigh the movie down.
This is all just another way of saying that — however unnecessary a sequel to Finding Nemo might have been — Finding Dory is, in some sense, the best possible followup that could have been made, given the characters and setting available to it. It’s a legitimately powerful film with a poignant lesson; I certainly enjoyed watching it. That being said, I hope that this entry does close the book on Marlin, Nemo, and Dory. It only takes one bad sequel to stain a franchise, and while this one didn’t, I don’t feel like taking further chances on a potential Finding Marlin. Having said that, if you haven’t seen Finding Dory already, I recommend doing so. It’s well worth it.
*Except for Cars.