For most of the duration of Finding Dory, the sequel to the incredibly popular Finding Nemo, we are treated to exactly what we wanted when the film was initially announced. The characters are back and don’t miss a beat, the ocean is luscious, and the intricacies of this world are on display again.
But something feels off about this movie — it isn’t poorly made or boring, it isn’t any less fun, it just is…simple. For being such a widely acclaimed movie by both audiences and critics, Finding Nemo was a nuanced film that transcended a format used to giving us fun characters to play with (at least before Pixar came along) and felt more like a fully-realized story in this expansive world. Finding Dory feels small, and while that isn’t necessarily something bad, it never develops into anything a short 15-minute version could’ve solved and never invites us to dig into these characters anymore than we did the previous time.
The paramount question when deciding to move forward with a sequel should always be whether or not there are more stories to be told inside of this world. Of course, there is usually a parade of green bills featuring dead Presidents that influences a studio’s decision with creating a film continuing a previous story, but on a base artistic and creative level, there should be some desire by the people behind the scenes to create something fresh and inventive within a familiar space.
Finding Dory aspires to be a film that can say it meets those expectations, but falters and feels like a set of short films mashed together with an adhesive made of nostalgia and monetary duty. Most of the film’s plot feels more like those Toy Story shorts that introduce fun, lively new characters while still allowing us to hang out with the ones we know and love over the course of 15-20 minutes.
We pick up one year after the events of Finding Nemo with Marlin (Albert Brooks), Nemo (Hayden Rolence), and Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) living peacefully following their adventure to P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney. But something is eating at Dory, and an abrupt reveal shows that the hole left inside her is from her parents, who she was separated from at a young age.
The word abrupt is key for the first 15-20 minutes of the film, which rushes through fan service and expected callbacks to favorite faces from the first film before shifting full gear into the new story. This time, the group is heading to California and a marine life institute, which houses and rehabilitates weak or sick animals — and is the home of Dory’s parents, Jenny (Diane Keaton) and Charlie (Eugene Levy).
One of the aspects of Finding Nemo that is sorely lacking in Dory is the grandiose sense of landscape. Nemo felt like a long journey, and by the end, there seemed to be a satisfied feeling that this journey was more than just the hour and 40 minute runtime — it was a cross-world excursion. Dory lacks any sense of that and feels more like a rushed draft of something that could’ve required a short re-visit. Nothing feels big or satisfying once you get to the marine institute and it almost feels like writer/director Andrew Stanton forgot why we were so attracted to his first film.
The sense of exploration is gone with nostalgia dictating what we need to see rather than a fresh take on this world. I never felt like there needed to be any of the characters from the first film returning, including Marlin and Nemo, who feel more like caricatures of themselves from Finding Nemo rather than two figures trying to grow over the course of an additional 90 minutes.
The one thing that does stand out about this film is its handling of Dory and her mental handicap that has become a trademark of the fish. The short-term memory loss gag has been mined to death over the course of Nemo, and in Dory, they bring back a lot of the jokes that were used before, but there is attention paid more to the handling and understanding of this issue rather than just playing it for more laughs.
Late in the film, Dory is told of the fate of her parents — something that she believes to be true, but later isn’t. As she comes to terms with what she just heard, she begins to go into a haze (a technique that most filmmakers use to visualize what suffering from depression, anxiety, or another mental illness is like), but what is most striking is what happens next. Dory is separated again from the other fish, and Marlin and Nemo, and begins to spiral into a long self-examination of who she is and what this memory loss trait does to define her.
She begins to comprehend that this trait is something that does define her, but one that doesn’t have to be the only thing she has to offer. It was similar to a sequence of events from a film I loved from last year, When Marnie Was There, which also shows a character suffering from anxiety trying to work out what that means for her overall persona.
Finding Dory does a lot of things in a lazy manner, but it succeeds in its small attempt to reckon with mental health and stigma around it. It also helps that Dory’s parents build off the rich tradition of these films coming to terms with what a parent means, and may be one of the best cinematic examples of parents with a child with disabilities.
The story feels stilted, and for the most part does not feel like something that needs to be told, but Dory redeems itself in its main character that transcends the established expectations of the beginning of this film and challenges her to develop into more than just a colorful joke box.