Finding Dory Review

(3.5 STARS)

The last time Pixar produced a sequel that was a decade in the making, they gave us Toy Story 3, the best Pixar film. It relied heavily on nostalgia to hit its marks — something its latest mega-sequel, Finding Dory, curiously eschews. Yes, the forgetful Dory, the nervous Marlin, and the loving Nemo are back from their first sea-crossing adventure, but there are very few cameos from its predecessor’s colorful cast of supporting fish, sharks, and other sea creatures. And perhaps more interestingly, the action is mostly confined to a water park, limiting the natural beauty that so defined Finding Nemo.

It might sound like I’m down on Finding Dory for these reasons, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. This is what Pixar should be doing when it revisits original properties — explore the changing dynamics of familiar characters’ relationships while staying true to the emotional heart of the first movie. Finding Dory does that in the same way Toy Story 3 did (and in a way Cars 2 utterly failed to). This is basically the same Dory, the same Marlin, and the same Nemo, but the nature of their relationship is changing. Their needs are not what they were 13 years ago, and the result is a film that’s almost shockingly worthy of its spectacular original.

It’s a year after Nemo (voice of Hayden Rolence) was rescued from that horrible dentist’s office thanks to the heroic efforts of his father (voice of Albert Brooks) and their friend (voice of Ellen DeGeneres). They’re happy together at home. Nemo is back at school, and Dory loves to accompany him, even though she forgets things almost immediately after she learns them.

She can’t quite shake an inkling that she’s lost her family, however, and she’s right. The film opens with a scene of baby Dory (voice of Sloane Murray) being showered with love by her parents, Jenny (voice of Diane Keaton) and Charlie (voice of Eugene Levy). But where did she really come from? And how did she lose her parents? She’s determined to find out, and Marlin and Nemo are (mostly) happy to help.

The film really doesn’t waste much time thrusting us into this new story. There’s little time to reset the board so to speak, and as such, the film is missing Pixar’s patented killer opening scenes (see Up, WALL-E). Still, there’s a lot to like about the road Finding Dory travels. Dory is this world’s most compelling character, and maybe the funniest character Pixar has ever produced. This film gives her depth and does so in an hilarious and poignant way.

It also does so, as I alluded to earlier, by relying heavily on new sea creatures. Hank (voice of Ed O’Neill) is objectively the standout. He’s a “septapus” — one limb is missing — who simply wants to go live in captivity in Cleveland. (We never know why he hates the ocean so much … maybe we will in 2029’s Finding Hank?) He finds Dory’s charm about as charming as Marlin did in Finding Nemo’s first two-thirds, yet he keeps coming back, and the two become a very nifty odd couple.

There’s also Destiny (voice of Kaitlin Olson), the near-sighted whale shark; Bailey (Ty Burrell), the dolphin with a broken echo-locator; Fluke (voice of Idris Elba) and Rudder (voice of Dominic West), sea lions and real squatters; and Sigourney Weaver as herself. No, really.

These new characters all give Finding Dory a freshness I wasn’t expecting. They’re extremely amusing and beautifully rendered (no surprise on the latter). The film’s story is also sweet and touching. Like the first film, Finding Dory is very much about family, but this time, it’s actually more layered than it was in Finding Nemo because we have many sets of characters wrestling with unique problems under this broad umbrella.

It’s not Pixar’s funniest, most emotionally involving, or most thoughtful and complex, but it succeeds on all three levels. It’s not so good that it changes my expectations for the disturbingly unnecessary Cars 3, but I’m nonetheless bullish on future Pixar sequels in a way I wasn’t before Finding Dory. It’s middle-of-the-road Pixar, yes, but it’s still one of 2016’s best movies so far.

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