The Pixar stamp is one of those rare brands in film that is, at this point, so assured that anything less than excellence seems marked. Few films have ever actually failed to meet that stamp of quality in any appreciable way. In fact, I’d only name Cars 2 as a film that feels un-Pixar in its likeability, if not necessarily in its form.
But as I said, that strength means that a film that is less than excellent for Pixar does really stand out, and they’ve had a few of those. I’ve perhaps always been alone in this one, but I feel that the original Finding Nemo is in that category. It’s a sweet film with plenty to remember, but it’s based so much in what is done to the characters rather than storytelling based in who the characters are like Pixar at its best.
Which is why I can’t say I was remarkably enthused upon the announcement of Finding Dory, a sequel that would be following Dory (Ellen Degeneres), that film’s short-term memory loss afflicted young fish companion. It seems like a bad idea, chasing popularity without really understanding what’s necessary to tell a good cinematic story.
And while I’ll say that Finding Dory isn’t necessarily absolved of the sins of its father, it’s a heartwrenching damn sight better than the original.
Finding Dory is another journey across the ocean to find missing family. This voyage sparked by Dory’s slowly returning memories of her parents, located in the “Jewel of Moray Bay, California.” Accompanied by Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Roylence), Dory and the gang find themselves in the Marine Life Institute, an aquarium and preservation center where the goal is rescue, rehabilitation, and release.
There they meet a cast of colorful sea life characters, including a grumpy septopus Hank (Ed O’Neill), a near-sighted whale shark Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), and two very territorial sea lions named Fluke (Idris Elba) and Rudder (Dominic West). This colorful cast helps bring the gang on a journey through the Marine Life Institute to find Dory’s parents.
Let’s get a few obvious things out of the way. You know the Pixar score at this point.
The animation in this film is absolutely gorgeous. Not just in the lively and expressive character designs or the colors that pop. This time in particular, Finding Dory finds a lot of beauty in solitude, a lot of graceful shots of loneliness and vastness in the ocean. I’m continually struck by the improvements Pixar keeps making in environments, making their environments impossibly realistic in ways that should create dissonance but don’t. It’s sort of taking the baton from The Good Dinosaur, but the clash between the realism and vastness and the cartoonish character designs feels far more successful here than with that film.
There are some amazing characters with amazing vocal performances accompanying them. Pretty much every new introduction is well-worth their addition. The sea lions voiced by tough British dudes Idris Elba and Dominic West had me laughing every scene they had. Ed O’Neill’s septopus Hank is not just a particularly impressive piece of animation, but a really great character speaking to the sort of sweetness that Finding Dory regards its characters with.
There is also, of course, Dory herself. I will express initial skepticism that she could have been the center of a film, but it’s hard to argue after Finding Dory. The film does what the best sequels do, which is expand on the original premise to add shading and depth to the characters they’ve established. Dory is now not just comic relief, but an actual character with motivations and movements and ideas. And much of that is thanks to the powerhouse performance from Ellen DeGeneres, who adds on to the ever-increasing pile of reasons that it’s criminal we don’t have an Oscar category to recognize voice and motion capture performances.
And Dory also speaks to the other obvious Pixar thing, which is that it addresses a positive message in an intelligent way. Finding Dory simply posits that maybe we don’t treat people with mental illnesses like shit, because they have their own ways of looking at the world that are just as valid and brilliant as the neurotypical. It’s a film about understanding those who just think differently, and it treats it with a sweet, delicate touch that I love.
Now that all that’s out of the way, let me explain why this one doesn’t quite break into the upper Pixar tier. Pixar good is still great, but I’m not evaluating it against every other animated film.
Finding Dory keeps one of the biggest sins of its predecessor, which is its reliance on incident-based storytelling. While alleviated by Dory’s storyline, there’s a whole lot of the film where it’s just characters reacting to stuff that happens to them. It leaves the film feeling less inspired than it should be, a lot more chugging forward than a Pixar story should have.
Especially because with incident-based storytelling, it’s whether or not the incidents work for you. If some particular happenstance doesn’t entertain you, you’re stuck waiting until the next one that does. It’s why this feels about 50% good Pixar and 50% great Pixar, and that ratio can never be “good enough.”
Most notably, the incident-based storytelling pops up with Marlin and Nemo. I’m not entirely sure why they’re in this film, besides being in the last one. Their presence doesn’t really add much thematically until the very end, and storytelling-wise they seem a distraction from what could have been a really strong and tight narrative around Dory.
That really just leads into the fact though that this is a sequel. As great as Pixar is, sequels have never been their forte like original films have been, Toy Story 3 being the exception that proves the rule. Finding Dory feels like it’s meeting too many sequel obligations, leaving little room for real narrative innovation or idea expansion.
It’s expanding on the world, but not expanding on Pixar’s boundaries. It’s as good as they get with just straight-up narrative storytelling, but you can’t help but feel they could do better, because you know they can. There’s not much innovation, not much pulling deep.
What they have is strong and emotional and well-put together. I feel more connection to this film than the original sequel, I think they’ve actually topped it. But Pixar can do better and they have done better. Finding Dory hits the ceiling for the kind of film it is, and that film is wonderful. But since when should Pixar allow themselves to have a ceiling?
Standard Film Grade: A-
PIXAR Grade: B+