A lot can change in 13 years, as evidenced by Finding Dory, the sequel to 2003’s smash hit computer animated Finding Nemo. Back then Pixar was a pioneering new studio, telling clever stories with cutting-edge technology and quietly astonishing heart. Now, though, their plot structures and thematic interests, once the source of boundless inspiration, can calcify into formula. It’s a bit overfamiliar to see returning writer-director Andrew Stanton and immensely talented teams of technicians breathe life into sea creatures and fall into an easy pattern of conflict and resolution wrapped up in funny incident, zippy action, and dramatic stings. Rinse and repeat. This isn’t just sequel-itis. It’s a studio staying in its comfort zone, ironic for a movie about how you need to get out and explore in order to more fully enjoy the comforts of home. So it may not hit the high water mark for the studio’s ingenuity. But Pixar has a higher baseline competence than just about anyone, bringing a vibrant and charming world to life in a simple plot bolstered by smart vocal performances, gorgeous images, and bouncy adventure.
Their best decision in making a sequel to Nemo is pivoting away from that film’s protagonist while still echoing its interest in memories and family reconciliation. Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son Nemo (young Hayden Rolence taking over for the now-too-old Alexander Gould) are still significant factors in the story, but the main focus is almost entirely on Dory (Ellen DeGeneres, continuing her best performance). Last time, the forgetful blue tang was the comic relief. Although her short-term memory problems had a tragic underpinning – she lost her family long ago, or at least she thinks she did – the previous movie had her making hilarious and heartwarming comments from the sidelines. Now Stanton, with co-director Angus MacLane and co-writer Victoria Strouse, decides to take her plight more seriously, to dig into her flawed memory as an engine for conflict, a loose plot thread that needs to be tied back for satisfying resolution.
And so Dory, excited by a fleeting flash of remembrance, sets off with her friends, travelling across the ocean looking for her long-lost parents (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy). There’s merciless heart-tugging appeal in seeing a cognitively impaired little fish desperately searching for her family, hoping she’ll get there before she forgets about them again. Unlike its predecessor’s eventful journey, Dory gets it over with quickly, arriving in no time at a massive aquarium park on California’s coast. Dory’s parents are in there, or at least she thinks she remembers them there. The plot is far and away Pixar’s simplest. Where their other films found good reasons to burst forth in climactic madcap chases, this is all chase. Dory gets almost immediately separated from Marlin and Nemo, leaving her scatterbrained self to scurry tank to tank, through pipes, and over obstacles to reconnect with her new friends and her old family. It’s curiously small, but sufficiently busy.
Along the way the characters encounter another of Pixar’s trademark eclectic ensembles of cartoony creations. There’s a grumpy seven-tentacled octopus (Ed O’Neill) planning an escape, a beluga whale (Ty Burrell) too nervous about his tender head to echolocate, a whale shark (Kaitlin Olson) with bad eyesight, a couple of barking territorial sea lions (Idris Elba and Dominic West), and a ruffled, squawking, speechless loon. It’s fun to encounter the variety of wildlife, hearing the energetic, committed, and perfectly cast voice work, and seeing their differing responses to having strange fish swim into their space. As you might suspect, the animals have to learn to embrace their differences and work together to accomplish their goals. That’s no surprise. But it’s nice to see the pieces fall into place as the loveable creatures banter and become buddies.
There’s no villain here, just a race against a slipping memory, and narrow escapes from the simple facts of life in a giant aquatic zoo. That’s sweetly low-key; no mean dentist with a cruel office fish bowl from which to rescue a lost fish boy means no fight against a bag guy. There are merely good fish who want to see each other succeed, which makes for a core kindness that allows the zipping around to feel safe. There is also a matter-of-fact, relaxed message about diversity and acceptance for the differently abled. The core goal for Dory to be reunited with her parents is the story of a fish who learns valuable skills to cope with her capabilities, to make an asset out of the things she does remember rather than dwelling on all she doesn’t. The menagerie of marine life floating through the story only amplifies this message. Everyone has their limitations, but by learning to help one another, and allowing one’s skills to complement other’s deficiencies, can build better lives alone and together.
It may not be anything approaching Pixar’s best, most complex, and emotional efforts, but Dory takes advantage of the studio’s great skill with locations and character. It builds a complete and convincing aquarium through which to run its formulaic plot, and populates it with typically lovely character work. Each little zone of the massive complex finds new lovable beings and designs, either benign or dangerous as they contribute to pushing the episodic scramble along. The whole thing then comes to vivid life with gorgeous interplays of textures and light, layers of depth sparkling in the schmutz suspended in ocean currents and Plexiglas cages. The result is a pleasing visual experience, and a fun diversion. What it lacks in novelty, it makes up for in entertainment tied to a strong, simple, easily digestible appeal. I’d rather see the people at Pixar push themselves. Last year, with Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur, was a fantastic one-two punch of finding new visual ideas to explore within their cozy template, so it’s natural to find Dory a comedown. At least Pixar in its comfort zone is still an enjoyable time at the movies.