Finding Dory: A Sequel Worth Remembering, by Ian Brill
Finding Dory is not just the long-awaited sequel to Finding Nemo, one of Pixar’s biggest hits. It’s also the return of director Andrew Stanton, who hasn’t directed a film since 2012’s John Carter, his only live action feature and one that yielded divided reactions and low box office returns. After such an experience, one would not blame him for returning to familiar, er, waters (pun not intended, and certainly regretted). Thankfully, Stanton and his crew avoid many of the pitfalls usually found in sequels to beloved films.
The new film is not interested in giving audiences the “greatest hits” of its predecessor. Finding Dory sees the return of the Nemo’s star players – Albert Brooks as Marlin and Ellen DeGeneres as Dory – replacing Alexander Gould as Nemo with Hayden Rolence. Beyond that, only a few other characters from Nemo appear, and in quick cameos. Despite the title, it also doesn’t feel like the main characters have found themselves repeating their previous adventure. While Dory is now the center of the film, it’s not she who is lost but rather her past. In particular, her parents (played by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy), who are seen in flashbacks. The forgetful Dory is getting flashes of who her parents were, and it spurs the trio to find them. Their adventure takes them to The Marine Life Institute in Morrow Bay, California, which may hold the answers Dory seeks.
Stanton depicts the undersea environments brilliantly, with vibrant colors everywhere, complete with lights shimmering through the water. In most underwater scenes there is usually some land in the frame, so no scene is ever weightless and each one have a distinct feel. The film shines in its action scenes. Instead of relying on fast cuts, the camera moves with its characters and environments. The editing that is used is diamond-cut in its precision. The sequences reach frantic speeds, yet the detail and focus is never lost. An early scene involving a giant squid is a great example of how to properly built tension in the lead-up to an exciting action scene. Alas, the scene also exemplifies the big weakness of the film.
Dory, Nemo, and Marlin find themselves thrown into the scene with the squid, and then taken out of it, by circumstances beyond their control. The scene is a technical marvel, but also one that could be excised from the film with no damage done to the story. It’s an early example of how passive the film’s protagonists are. Many coincidences present challenges to the characters, but it seems that just as many work toward their fortunes. A new major character, one from Dory’s past, is named Density (Kaitlin Olson), and the joke in her name may be the only thing that saves the inexpiable timing of her appearance.
Thankfully, another new character gives the film some much-needed character-based propulsion by acting with more agency than the three leads combined. The octopus, or rather a septopus (he lost a tentacle), named Hank (Ed O’Neill) is the best thing about Finding Dory and is sure to become an audience favorite. He strikes a deal with Dory to help one another. She wants to find her parents, and he wants to escape the sanctuary and get a ride to a facility in Cleveland, as he has no interest in going back to the ocean. He can survive on both land and sea, plus he can blend in with his surroundings. When the film follows him, usually holding Dory in some kind of water-filled container, it allows for many clever visuals. O’Neill’s performance establishes Hank as a grumpy soul, but one that is still lovable and sympathetic, even when he is strictly opposed to Dory’s plans (or lack of them). Hank’s shape means his mouth is usually off-screen, so Stanton and his animators do wonders with the expressions Hank makes with his eyes and the rest of his body. Pixar is known for making short films centered on side characters, and Hank is clear candidate of a starring role of his own.
While the rest of the players acquit themselves well, DeGeneres in the lead performance seems to have a hard time bringing more notes to Dory other than surface-level depictions of cheerfulness and confusion. The film seems to know this. One emotional scene near the end gives most of the lines to Marlin, and Brooks handles it with aplomb. Another moment of distress for Dory is told with wild visuals and is not depend on a vocal performance. It isn’t until the very end does Stanton clear the way for DeGeneres to play really deep and sad emotions. She does good work, but one wonders why this work was saved until the end, and the rest of her performance feels like it has no arc.
Finding Dory does everything it can to work past the deficiencies in its in leads. Their efforts succeed and the film is a joy, albeit a fleeting one. The film is preceded but the short Piper, another marine-set story. Directed by Alan Barillaro, it tells of a young sandpiper who must learn to no longer be dependent on its mother. A dialogue-free film, it tells an almost Aesop-like fable with stunning cinematography and much more realistic-looking animal life. At moments, Piper feels like nature photography come to life. One of the few exaggerated elements is how cute the lead character is. The little hatchling will have young audience goers transfixed from the start.