A new Pixar movie is no longer the event it once was. By my count they haven’t made a film close to their old standards in over five years now, capping out last year with their most forgettable entry yet (The Good Dinosaur, in case you needed reminding). I know some people fell for Inside Out, but I wasn’t among them. It was at least an original concept though, now they attempt to return to their glory days with another sequel to one of the films that in 2003 seemed to truly solidify their reputation as a quality brand, but it’s still not the return to form I’ve been hoping for.
Dory, the Blue Tang fish voiced by Ellen Degeneres has proven to be an enduringly popular character over the years, but I have to admit that even though I liked Finding Nemo, I was never all that keen on her, finding her to be an occasionally annoying one-note character. That single defining trait was that she had short-term memory loss, it seemed like an amusing natural extension of the misconception about goldfish having only seconds of memory, and works as such for a short time, but the film never examined it further than that. Finding Dory on the other hand, looks to be trying to explore the more serious implications of her disability. The opening scene depicts Dory as a child practising how to explain her condition with her parents. It’s a really admirable and interesting angle for a kids’ film about taking aquatic animals to take on.
However, this is not really what Finding Dory does, white her condition features in several important moments, it also appears to be some form of fictitious “movie-amnesia” that seems highly inconsistent. For instance, the plot of the movie is primarily driven by her remembering things, she can’t make memories but at numerous convenient moments she will suddenly have a recollection to help move things forward for everybody. The film is at least consistent with Finding Nemo though, offering a few connection that explain a few aspects of Dory there in a manner that makes sense.
Unfortunately, this is by no means the only aspect of Finding Dory that feels like a bit of a cheat. The film takes place not long after the end of Finding Nemo, a luxury afforded by animation that a 13-years on live-action sequel couldn’t achieve. Dory, now living with Marlin and Nemo has a recollection of her parents and decides to set out on a quest to find them again, with the over-anxious Marlin and eager Nemo tagging along.
Their destination is a sea life rehabilitation facility in California and upon arrival, Dory needs to navigate various obstacles that will necessitate frequently leaving the water. Sounds like a tough but interesting challenge to her to work around, but disappointingly, Pixar basically concoct a catch-all solution in the form of an octopus named Hank.
Hank is essentially a living plot device, he’s able to survive for long stretches outside of the water, he can walk, jump, climb, he can even drive a truck, always with one tentacle free to carry around a cup of water containing Dory with him too. On top of all this, he’s able to camouflage himself to easily hide in whatever environment he’s currently in. He’s Finding Dory’s frequently employed ‘get-out-of-jail-free card’.
To be fair though, he is at least a distinctive character as well, endearingly voiced by Ed O’Neill, and the film gets in a good number of decent visual gags involving his ability to camouflage. His general curmudgeonly attitude hints at a more fascinating back story too, but it’s not one the film ultimately explores much.
Sadly, Hank is not the only character who possesses abilities that seem purely to be there in order to get Dory out of tricky situations. There’s a whale shark named Destiny who can communicate with Dory ever-so-conveniently through pipes that connect the whole system, and a beluga whale who can apparently echolocate great distances out of the water. A lot of it really comes across as lazy writing of the kind Pixar has not been known for.
There’s even, in some sort of ‘one for the grown ups’ in-joke cameos from The Wire veterans Dominic West and Idris Elba (his 3rd animation of the year) as a pair of seals who add very little of value and invite some troubling conclusions regarding their unpleasant, bullying treatment of another seal.
Still though, despite all these shortcomings, Finding Dory works as an adventure film. Dory’s quest to find her parents makes for a strong enough through-line and does lead to one big emotional moment that’s beautifully handled. It almost goes without saying now, but the underwater animation is gorgeous to behold. I’m sure kids will still love this film, but every year now I find myself reminded that Pixar no longer feels like the guarantee of quality it once was. Now content to churn out mediocre-to-serviceable adventure comedies lacking signs of the extreme care they used to put in.