Rated PG for mild thematic elements.
Running time: 103 minutes
Three stars out of four.
If there were no such thing as “Finding Nemo” — if there were never a previous Pixar movie, ever — we’d all be blown away by “Finding Dory.” It’s gorgeous. It’s lively. It’s got terrific performances from a strong voice cast. It’s emotionally affecting without being heavy-handed.
The trouble is, the bar is just so high that a really well-made Pixar movie feels solidly upper-mid-tier compared to truly groundbreaking, profound offerings from the animation house like “WALL-E” (also from “Dory” director Andrew Stanton), “Up” and “Inside Out.” This is the problem when you’re the best at what you do: The expectations are just ridiculous.
Having said that, I really enjoyed “Finding Dory” — even though it’s essentially the same story as its predecessor, 2003’s “Finding Nemo” — in that it’s about a fish who’s struggling to reconnect with family and is willing to cross an ocean to make that happen. It is genuinely thrilling and moving, with one crucial shot that will make you cry (if you haven’t already), especially if you’re a parent. But it’s also just a lot of fun, filled with colorful, playful characters for the kids to enjoy, and it zips by at just the right clip.
This time, Ellen DeGeneres is front-and-center — or whatever the equivalent is in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean — returning to the character of Dory, a blue tang who has trouble remembering. Heartbreaking flashbacks reveal that this problem plagued her from childhood, when her parents (voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) taught her tricks and songs to strengthen her memory and keep her safe. Parents of children with special needs or learning disabilities surely will find comfort in the film’s sensitive depiction of a potentially tricky topic. Dory’s parents are kind, patient and loving as they help her remember how to remember, all the while instilling in her an essential sense of self-worth.
They can only do so much to protect her from the realities of the underwater world, however; eventually she becomes separated from them and ends up crossing paths years later with the characters she bonded with in “Finding Nemo”: Nemo himself (voiced this time by Hayden Rolence) and his dad, Marlin (Albert Brooks, functioning beautifully in his comfort zone of being uncomfortable).
It’s easy to take for granted how skillful these actors are in bringing these roles to life with just their voices. DeGeneres is so nimble as Dory, showing off her impeccable comic timing and energy but also digging deep into the opportunity to reveal a more dramatic, understated side to her talent. Dory could, in theory, be a potentially annoying, one-note character, but the script from Stanton and Victoria Strouse allows DeGeneres to provide complexity and shading. (Stanton also co-directed with Angus MacLane.) And the role of Marlin is so clearly in Brooks’ wheelhouse: He’s the smartest guy (or fish) in the room who’s miserable nonetheless. His dry, self-deprecating sense of humor is always welcome.
Anyway, Dory begins to remember that she has a family of her own and decides, against all odds, to seek them out across the ocean. She gets help along the way from Marlin and Nemo as well as various other sea creatures, including a reluctant octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill), a nearsighted whale shark (Kaitlin Olson) and an insecure beluga whale (Ty Burrell). All are consistently strong and provide just the right amount of heart and humor, but O’Neill is the scene-stealer, both for the cool way Hank camouflages himself and insinuates himself into impossible situations and for the way he evolves in his involvement with Dory.
Hank was Nicolas’ favorite character, too, and a great example of how well Pixar’s stories work on various levels for various kinds of viewers. Nic is 6 so he enjoyed the physicality and playfulness of the character; I was impressed by the way his perspective changes in believable ways over the course of the film. Again, all solidly entertaining stuff, but not necessarily life-altering. Then again, maybe it doesn’t need to be.
Nic and I were actually more wowed by “Piper,” the short that plays before “Finding Dory,” from director Alan Barillaro. It’s about a tiny sandpiper who overcomes his fear of finding his own food on the beach and develops the confidence to thrive. It is stunningly beautiful in its photorealism — in the waves that lap onto the shore, the individual grains of sand shimmering in the sun, the tufts of fluff on our steely hero. In just six wordless minutes, it brought tears to my eyes. So make sure you get to the theater, get your popcorn and find your seats on time. You don’t want to miss this small but powerful gem.