Coming near the tail-end of their sequel phase, Finding Dory was the latest follow up to belatedly capitalize on the instant classics Pixar was bopping out within their first few years on an almost casual basis. The results were divided; some jumped at the chance to see some beloved characters once again like Woody and Buzz, Sulley and Mike and…. well maybe not McQueen and Mater, but you get the point.
Others however, saw this as an unsubtle cash grab that betrayed the studio’s vast imagination and felt like an enormously talented production house running on the spot as it sandwiched ground breaking concepts like Inside Out between the latest bout of fish getting lost or buddy monsters falling out.
The truth, like in almost all things, is somewhere in the middle and while the Toy Story and Cars franchises grew into trilogies and beyond, Marlin and Dory were content to swim in similar circles…
A year after Marlin traversed the ocean in search of his missing son, Nemo, the father and son team have settled down into a calm and sedate life with Dory who is still trying to live with her short-term memory problem.
She has a major breakthrough when vague memories of the family surface where we meet an offensively cute Dory at a very young age as her parents help her to get a handle on her neurological issues – but while she is elated at this reclaimed knowledge, she desperately wishes to head out and find her folks much to the horror of the cautious Marlin.
Convinced by Nemo to help and hopping a ride with turtle surfer-dude Crush on the EEC, the group track Dory’s parent’s location to the Marine Life Institute in California where, after a telling off by the constantly frustrated Marlin, Dory is spirited away by Institute staff and placed in quarantine for sick fish. Yep, it’s time for another against-the-clock rescue mission where Dory has to find her parents while Marlin and Nemo have to find Dory before everyone gets transferred to a fish sanctuary in Cleveland.
So far, so Finding Nemo meets Toy Story 2, but spicing up the chase is the typical Pixar-esque cast of supporting characters that aid the fish on their latest adventure. Chief of these is caffeine slurping, PTSD suffering octopus named Hank who is desperate to escape the institute and start a new life in Cleveland, but adding to the ranks are near-sighted whale shark Destiny, neurotic beluga whale Bailey, lethargic sealions Fluke and Rudder and a wild-eyed loon named Becky. As Hank rapidly depletes his patience while he desperately tries to decipher Dory’s fractured memory, he tries to scam her out of her tag before the truck to Cleveland peels off and leaves him stranded in the kiddie touching pool (wait, I don’t think I worded that right) but will the regal blue tang find her parents in time for Marlin to find her?
So, let’s get stuck right in and dive deep into the flaws first if for no other reason than the novel experience of picking holes in Pixar movies tends to be a rare event and the main issue with Finding Dory is that it suffers from the same problem that Cars 2 had by shoving its quirky sidekick front and center while leaving it’s original straight man somewhat surplus to requirements. Pirates Of The Caribbean works precisely because it’s weirdest character isn’t the main focal point, but instead offers vital support to the story to keep the laughs coming while not carrying the burden of the entire story on their own. Giving Dory the spotlight may clear up some story points that left people curious about the first film (like, how the hell does Dory live?), but not only does it make her noticably less funny, it also makes other characters like Nemo almost utterly unnecessary. Any callbacks to the original film feel weirdly forced too, with returns like Crush and Squirt feeling like obvious and backwards attempts at cheap pleas for goodwill from the kids. Most jarring of all is the pace. Usually that’s something that’s rarely an issue for Pixar, but here the film is all over the damn place with the film not probably getting any traction until about 20 minutes in, when Dory first needs finding.
It’s here that Finding Dory finally starts swimming with the current, relying heavily on its cadre of damaged new characters to counteract the slight awkwardness of the original cast. Recruiting ruthlessly from the cream of the golden age of television and ransacking cast members from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Modern Family and – of all things – The Wire, the newbies carry the load nicely and best of all is Ed O’Neill’s gruff, panic stricken Hank, a colour shifting master of disguise who’s slippery body is not only a technological marvel in CGI, but is extremely engaging to boot. Alongside it’s traumatised octopus, the most interesting thing about Finding Dory is how it taken the original’s subplot about being disabled (Nemo has mismatched fins, remember) and runs with it as far as it can by having almost all of its cast struggling with some sort of physical or mental handicap. Now, whether it’s successful or not is entirely up to you, but among the incredibly successful joke rate (the running gag involving all the fish thinking that Sigourney Weaver is their friend due to her voice bring on the Institute’s announcement system is one of Pixar’s best) is a movie that tackles parental anxiety when raising a disabled child, bullying of those who are different (the monobrowed, obviously impaired seal, Gerald, is treated abominably by Idris Elba and Dominic West’s alpha seals) and the disabled characters being constantly dismissed by the “normal” ones with Becky and Dory are constantly underrated by Marlin.
While there’s an argument to be made that the movie often uses some of these attributes for comic purposes such as Destiny’s eyesight troubles causing her to constantly swim into things or Gerald’s obviously “off” appearance, the characters all persevere when faced with their various challenges and the movie deserves nod for so much inclusion.
A cracking final half hour and some genuinely touching moments involving Dory’s parents (an ingeniously cast Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) bring Finding Dory home with style, but we have to swim through some strangely choppy waters to get there – certainly more choppy that we’re used to from Pixar, a studio who’s storytelling muscles usually result in much smoother sailing than this.