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To begin with, there is lot here that will appeal and is strikingly familiar with its original, though it veers dramatically into the absurd as it reaches its finale. With a title and premise such as it is, there isn’t much the story could do but follow the same path, but it manages to keep it interesting and often funny, and as expected, tugging on all the right heartstrings.
It starts with a short introduction to Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) and her parents (Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton), who are dealing with their very young daughter’s short-term memory loss, teaching her the ways to navigate her world safely. She is quickly separated and in a quick montage of years passing, she grows and searches, eventually bumping into Marlin (Albert Brooks) at the moment where his journey took off. Now that we are all caught up, we can get her story off the ground. Or out to sea as it were.
While living comfortably with Marlin and Nemo (Hayden Rolence), Dory is suddenly struck by a series of powerful memories of her parents and thinks she knows where they are. She decides she must leave the safety of the coral bed and rejoin her family, which Marlin initially balks at but, recognizing the connection to his own past, agrees to help her. The three set off for California, to a marine life institute (where we are rigorously reminded these creatures are not here for show but to be healed and sent back to the ocean), and once there, they themselves get separated when Dory, accidentally wrapped in plastic is rescued by members of the institute. Inside, she’s tagged and placed in a small tank in an lab to be processed later. Meanwhile, an escaped octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill) finds her and makes a deal to help her find her parents if she will give him her tag. The tag ensures a trip to a permanent home in Cleveland where he thinks he can live his life in comfort. Using his remarkable camouflage abilities, the two head for the open ocean exhibit where her parents are supposed to be but are met with one catastrophe after another after another. Meanwhile, just outside the park, Marlin and Nemo struggle with how to get inside and find Dory. It involves a kooky, bug-eyed bird.
Co-directed by Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane, the first to be said is the speculator look of the film. Just as Finding Nemo was a visually stunning work that left many theater-goers in awe, so too does the sequel 13 years later. Bright and colorful, the sea and the institute are breathtakingly well-animated worlds that vividly captivate and keep our eyes busy exploring the corners. The film is well-paced yet even at a 103 minutes feels just a bit too long, mostly because the trend of overcoming ever-increasingly difficult obstacles becomes a bit too much. Every single step forward is always followed by a setback and forces all parties to think of another way around. It goes on and on building to an ending that, unlike the original where reality and fantasy was stretched to a fun length, instead outright abandons that and becomes absurd, involving a freeway full of cars. Just a reminder. This is a fish story.
Yes, it’s a children’s animated movie. But there was a sense of logic to the first, an acceptance that even though these fish and mammals spoke ‘our’ language, they really didn’t and our two worlds were two wholly opposing universes that clashed. What transpires here feels less so and while Pixar sublimely steals hearts as they have always managed to do with pitch-perfect emotional moments, they are hindered a lot by an illogical and perplexing great escape sequence that shreds all sense of credibility. It’s a mistake that mars just about everything that comes before.
That said, there’s no denying the wonder that Dory the character ignites. There was some worry that the amusing memory bits with Dory that made Finding Nemo so fun would be threadbare here. Not so. Thanks to DeGeneres’ deeply committed vocal performance, there’s not a single moment when you are not rooting for her. The writers are careful not to over-do the ‘just keep swimming‘ mantra that made her so special, even giving the inspiring expression some background. She is surrounded by well-defined characters, even if they are a bit reflective of Nemo and the story tends to callback to the successes of the first a little too often. None of the new characters are going to have the lasting appeal of the first (save perhaps for Hank), but that’s a tough act to follow. A near-sighted whale shark named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson) and a beluga whale named Bailey (Ty Burrell) who bumped his head and now doesn’t think he can use his echo-location (but if only he believes!) make for a cute pair but feel a wee bit contrived. All creatures in this world seemed to be defined by the thing that, well, defines them.
Finding Dory is another competently made Disney/Pixar release that while not original, taps into the nostalgia motivating many summer releases. It has strong emotional moments and is orchestrated to be the tear-jerker many hope it will be. Often funny and always good to look at, it swims gleefully in familiar waters.
Directors: Andrew Stanton, Angus MacLane
Writers: Andrew Stanton (original story by), Andrew Stanton (screenplay)
Stars: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O'Neill, Eugene Levy, Diane Keaton, Idris Elba, Kaitlin Olson