Whenever Pixar releases a new film, it’s an event. The gold standard of computer generated animation for twenty years, Pixar had become synonymous with quality for such a long time that each new release was destined for critical acclaim, Academy Award recognition and box office success. Pixar’s greatest asset was its creativity, each new project a fresh story and setting. The juggernaut of a studio has gotten away from that aspect of things a bit as of late, returning to the well for two (excellent) additional Toy Story films, as well as not nearly as victorious second installments of the Cars and Monsters Inc. franchises. Those films were part of a run of disappointment from the studio, culminating in the shockingly poor The Good Dinosaur last Thanksgiving (of course, Inside Out was released during that run, so it couldn’t be all bad). Despite the recent stumbles that have come with revisiting old intellectual property, Pixar’s 2016 release sees the venerated company head back to the ocean thirteen years after one of its greatest triumphs, Finding Nemo.
This time around it is Dory, the genial, excitable and profoundly forgetful fish played by Ellen Degeneres, whose turn it is to go missing. After a series of events jars loose some long forgotten old memories of her parents (played in flashback by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy), Dory takes off for the shores of California, her clown fish companions Marlon (the ever exasperated Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) in tow. Dory’s journey to be reunited with her parents takes her to an aquarium/research facility/resort park (SeaWorld without the Blackfish baggage, essentially) that might hold the answers she seeks. Aided by a strikingly nearsighted whale shark (Kaitlin Olson), a Beluga who can’t quite get the hang of his echolocation (Ty Burrell) and an octopus doing everything he can to avoid being evicted from the friendly confines of the park’s controlled environment (Ed O’Neill), Dory must search her murky memory to find the clues that might see her find her family after so many years away.
Finding Dory could easily be seen as a cash grab along the lines of Cars 2 (Cars and Finding Nemo are the most kid-friendly of Pixar’s originals after all); its first installment did not exactly scream for a sequel, and thirteen years between films is not exactly a case of striking while the iron is hot. Andrew Stanton is back in the director’s chair as he was the first time around (making a triumphant return to Pixar after his disastrous live action debut John Carter), and a decade and a half of technological improvements are poised to make the ocean look more breathtaking than it ever has before. This is all well and good, but that sense of familiarity hasn’t always worked in the studio’s favor. The hope is that Pixar took this long to make a second Nemo film because they didn’t have a story worth a full length film until now. In practice, it could be tough to justify that belief. The structure of the screenplay is exceedingly similar to that of Finding Nemo, another journey across the sea, small, vulnerable fish in a giant pond with danger lurking everywhere. The tenor of the proceedings is certainly different with Dory at the helm of the search compared to the far more cautious Marlon, but as a general rule, Finding Dory doesn’t bring all that much new to the table. The new supporting cast provides quite a bit of comic relief, but it would not be an untoward criticism to claim that does not do quite enough to differentiate itself from its predecessor. And when its predecessor is one of the most beloved animated films of the 21st century, second best can still be a precipitous drop.
There is one aspect of Finding Dory that gives Finding Nemo a run for its money. As Dory’s back story is fleshed out, featuring an impossibly tiny and impossibly cute little fish voiced by Sloane Murray who is more eyes than fish at times, she generates an endless pool of overwhelming sympathy. Young Dory is, for all intents, a far more pitiable version of Nemo, far more susceptible to danger due to her short term memory loss and far more tragic as she knows she’s lost and lost something, but cannot remember what it is. The Dory of Finding Nemo was surely an empathetic character, but her development here makes her a worthy protagonist. Interestingly enough, when Marlon is relegated to the side, his character comes across much worse for wear than the spotlight; his hectoring provincialism loses its charm and quickly wears out its welcome. Luckily, Marlon and Nemo are a much smaller part of the narrative, with new cast members like Hank the octopus and Destiny the whale shark proving far more capable support.
With technology advancing by leaps and bounds in past decade and a half, Finding Dory’s aesthetic has improved quite a bit. Though there are not nearly as many sequences set in the open ocean, the film is a vibrant, visual feast chock full of minute detail and teeming with life inhabiting every corner of the screen. However, the visual bona fides and efficacy of the flashbacks are little more than wallpaper over a familiarly painted room. Finding Dory is an easy watch, breezy and fun with dollops of laughter and quite a bit of heart. It justifies its existence more than Monsters University or Cars 2, but not nearly to the level of Toy Storys 2 and 3. Those films set Pixar’s sequel bar at a perhaps unreasonable height, one that Finding Dory cannot hope to meet. It is a decent film, but for a studio like Pixar with the pedigree it has earned over the last two decades, decent doesn’t quite cut it.