Finding Dory

I know a couple in Illinois who used Finding Nemo as a tool to deceive their child. The couple, who I’ll refer to as Mom and Dad, would use it one night as bait on their very young son. The little boy would be getting fussy and refuse bedtime until he got to watch a movie first. Mom and Dad would start Finding Nemo, letting it play for about 15 minutes. Then, Mom would distract her son, while Dad quickly hit the remote and jumped to the last 10 minutes of the movie. They’d both say, “Hooray, they found Nemo! The movie is over!” Their poor kid would be too tired to realize he’d been grifted by his parents, who used a Pixar movie to manipulate their child.

That anecdote came to mind while watching the long-awaited sequel, which feels every bit as rushed and forced as the mini-version of Finding Nemo I watched with a mystified little boy in Illinois.

This time, it’s the lovable but forgetful Dory (voiced wonderfully by Ellen DeGeneres) who goes on an ocean-wide search for her parents. Nemo and his father follow along, while Dory meets a new cast of characters residing in a massive ocean center. Somehow, a whale, an octopus and Sigourney Weaver figure into the story.

Throughout the movie, I searched for subtext and deeper meaning. Surely this couldn’t just be a movie about talking fish, right? Finally, something with purpose reveals itself. Through flashbacks, we see Dory’s parents (nicely voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) as they patiently and lovingly raise their daughter, who can’t remember anything. It’s a tribute to parents raising special needs children and an example of parenting done right. We eventually see what Dory’s parents have been up to in her absence and it’s a visual that moved me. Otherwise, I felt disconnected from Finding Dory. There are fine moments and funny new side characters but, as a sequel, it falls oceans short of the original.

This isn’t a cynical cash-in, like Cars 2, but it’s nowhere near as funny as Monsters University or as touching as Toy Story 3. The original had two Pixar milestones: the hysterically funny scenes in a dentist’s office and a thrilling sky chase involving a flock of seagulls. Nothing here comes close to that level of brilliance.

Dory is adorable but, when you really think about it, not a character to base an entire movie around. Her plight is very sad and so is much of her journey. Her memory loss can be paralyzing and–especially if she’s alone for a lengthy period of time. This leads to some distressing and tremendously downbeat scenes, particularly the wrenching moment where we see how she got lost in the first place.

But I liked the odd, silent bird who helps in finding Dory. Also funny are the territorial sea lions, one of which is voiced by Idris Elba (whose ubiquitous presence in movies I welcome). Yet, no one comes close to the comic invention of Willem Dafoe’s Gill from the original. Nemo feels like a secondary and not entirely important figure this time out. The animation is magnificent but it’s in the service of a tale that needed more work.

Considering just how hilarious and exhilarating Finding Nemo was, I expected an emotional workout to match the richness of the visual beauty. Truthfully, Pixar’s recent, underappreciated (and, due to its poor box office, their black sheep) The Good Dinosaur soared at blending big laughs and heartbreaking storytelling. Maybe it’s time to give Nemo and Dory a rest but how about another round of Arlo the Dinosaur?

Two and a Half Stars

originally published in Maui Time Weekly