When Finding Nemo was released in 2003, it seemed as if Pixar could do no wrong. Everything they touched turned to gold (even Toy Story 2, which was conceived as a straight-to-DVD affair but wound up becoming something even richer than the original), and many proclaimed that we were living in a new Golden Age of Animation. All of Pixar's early films were unique, and the best of them – a sub-group that includes Finding Nemo - felt like risky ideas that could have been disastrous in the wrong hands.
Thirteen years later, Pixar's reputation isn't quite what it once was. Their name is no longer a guarantee of brilliance, and they've grown more risk-averse under Disney's ownership: four of their last seven films have been sequels, and three of their next four movies will be sequels. Yes, they're still very good at what they do (I'll take the worst Pixar films over most other big-budget animated films released each year), but now they hedge their bets by buffering big creative gambles (Brave, Inside Out) with guaranteed hits (Cars 2, Monsters University). While Finding Nemo was in the former category, Finding Dory is in the latter. Familiarity isn't automatically a bad thing (I'll take Monsters University over Brave any day of the week) – and Finding Dory certainly isn't a bad movie – but Pixar's latest doesn't quite have the depth of its predecessor.
The story begins a year after the events of the original Finding Nemo. The fretful clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks, Drive), his good-natured son Nemo (Hayden Rolence) and their forgetful friend Dory (Ellen Degeneres, Ellen) – who suffers from short-term memory loss – are enjoying the sort of happy, peaceful, drama-free existence that characters often get to enjoy between sequels. However, when Dory suddenly experiences a memory of her parents, she determines to make the long journey to the California coast to find them. Naturally, Marlin and Nemo decide to join her.
You might assume that what follows is the oceanic equivalent of a road movie, with an epic journey mirroring the one that Marlin and Dory took in the previous film. However, the film throws us a curveball by cheating: Crush the sea turtle (director Andrew Stanton) shows up and offers the characters a ride, allowing the movie to hit the “fast travel” button and get the characters halfway around the world in the span of a single scene. It's an efficient bit of storytelling, but it's the first of many moments that make Finding Dory feel out-of-sync with Finding Nemo. In the first film, every single victory felt hard-won. Even though everything that happened was completely unrealistic, you got the sense that the characters were struggling against near-insurmountable odds. That was a film in which the biggest, most challenging goals involved making a fish tank dirty and jumping out of a window only two feet away from that tank. In this film, these humble fish are required to break into multiple buildings and hijack delivery trucks. These scenes are inventively staged, but the wacky cartoon logic the movie employs is a little jarring.
The bulk of the film takes place in and around the Marine Life Institute, a large, impressive facility that cares for/showcases a diverse array of sea creatures. We learn that Dory grew up in the Institute's Open Ocean exhibit, and that she believes her parents still live there. Unfortunately, getting to the exhibit is going to be incredibly tricky, and things get even more complicated when Dory is separated from Marlin and Nemo. The two clownfish spend a good chunk of the movie on the sidelines, much as Lightning McQueen did in Cars 2 (in both cases, the original heroes are overtaken by a standout supporting character from the first film).
Fortunately, Dory makes a much better protagonist than Mater did. While her memory problems were largely used as a running gag in Finding Nemo, this new installment uses them as the springboard for a moving examination of the struggles people with special needs – and the people tasked with caring for them – have to face every day. Admittedly, the film is a bit more heavy-handed than its predecessor in the way it digs into its deeper themes (I could have lived without the movie's slightly-forced attempt to turn Dory's cutesy “just keep swimming” song into something profoundly important), but there's no denying the emotional impact the strongest scenes generate.
Degeneres' vocal performance is superb, too: anyone who's seen the first film knows that she's perfect for the part, but Finding Dory gives her the opportunity to explore an even broader range of emotions. She aces the character's bubbly enthusiasm, insecure confusion and pained frustration, bringing considerable depth of feeling more than a few moments. The supporting cast is filled with fun new turns, too: Ed O'Neill (Modern Family) is marvelous as a grouchy Octopus, Ty Burrell (Mr. Peabody and Sherman) is amusingly obnoxious as a beluga whale with special echolocation abilities (these get used so often that Finding Dory occasionally begins to feel like a superhero movie) and Eugene Levy (American Pie) and Diane Keaton (Annie Hall) bring an appealing blend of eccentricity and warmth to Dory's parents. The funniest new characters are Fluke (Idris Elba, The Wire) and Rudder (Dominic West, The Wire), a pair of sea lions who are at the center of the film's best running gag (the second-best running gag involves the soothing voice of Sigourney Weaver).
So yes, Finding Dory is funny, sweet and clever. Laughter is probable, tears are certainly possible. It's worth your time. Still... it's no Finding Nemo, partially because it both mimics too many of that film's most memorable moments and because it doesn't quite have the nerve to take the creative risks that film took. It's understandable that Stanton would want to go for an easy double instead of a home run: his live-action feature John Carter was an expensive flop, and he needed a hit. He's an excellent filmmaker, and that's evident throughout Finding Dory (even the most ridiculously contrived sequences are sort of dazzling in terms of technical construction), but this is less a striking new work of art than a solid brand extension.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Year: 2016