As longtime readers will know, my relationship to the Pixar Animation Studio is… complicated. I ignored them for years, much as I ignored family films of all varieties, until the overwhelming critical acclaim finally wore me down. Finally in early 2011 I broke down and watched all the Pixar movies for the first time and wrote about the experience in a series of blog posts. Long story short, the movies weren’t really for me and I wouldn’t go along with some of the more over the top praise for them, they were certainly well made movies for what they were and I found some things to enjoy in them. Since then I’ve kept up with their output as they’ve come out on Blu-Ray for academic reasons, but until now I’ve never taken the step of seeing one of their movies in theaters and writing a full review. So why now? Well, it certainly wasn’t because Finding Dory seemed like all that promising of a project to me. Of the old Pixar movies I watched back in 2011 Finding Nemo was not one of my favorites and Pixar’s non-Toy Story sequels have generally not been great. Also, while Finding Dory has definitely been very well liked by critics it certainly hasn’t received the rapturous reception of Inside/Out. The rather unglamorous answer is that, unlike other Pixar movies, Finding Dory has come out during a very slow period in the release schedule and with nothing better to see it seemed to me that keeping up with the discussion around the latest Pixar release seemed like the best option.
This sequel, while made over a decade later, is set a year after the events of the original Finding Nemo. Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (now voiced by Hayden Rolence) have settled back down in their ocean home but have maintained a close friendship with their memory challenged companion Dory (Ellen DeGeneres). One day after a convenient bonk on the head Dory suddenly has a memory from her childhood of her parents. It’s vague but it’s enough for her to know she should be looking in Morro Bay California, which is on the other side of the Pacific from her current Australian digs. Dory wants to seek them out and Marlin, realizing that he owes her one, reluctantly agrees to go with her there and after they hitch a ride on the turtles from the first movie they discover that her parents actually live inside of a giant Seaworld-like aquarium called the Marine Life Institute. Soon Dory and Nemo are split up and are desperately searching through this rather large but interconnected institute to try to find these missing parents and escape before it’s too late.
A big part of why I wasn’t too wild about the original Finding Nemo was because I thought the character of Dory was really really annoying. In fact my exact words were “what really irritated me about Dory was that every time I was getting into Marlin’s story and wanting him to succeed he would be hindered by Dory’s comic relief, though paradoxically I was just as if not more annoyed whenever she somehow managed to help Marlin’s quest through some kind of wacky accident.” I can’t say that the character has been changed too dramatically but her crazy memory problem has been framed in a different way that does make it more palatable. Most notably her “condition,” which mostly came off like a comic relief driven eccentricity in the first movie feels more like an allegory for a legitimate mental illness this time around. This puts you the viewer in an odd position because every time you wish someone would yell “Dory there you go ruining everything again” or “Dory will you just shut up for one fucking second and let someone explain something to you” at her you have to stop yourself from thinking such things because it’s kind of a dick move to yell at a “special needs” person whose trying their best.
Fortunately Pixar has my back on this vis-a-vie a new character named Hank the Octopus. Hank is an octopus voiced by Ed O’Neil who has been living in the marine institute and is trying to find his way onto a truck going to the Cleveland aquarium, which he believes will finally allow him a life of peace and quiet after having had bad experiences both in the ocean and in a children’s exhibit. He tags along with Dory because he thinks she can give him her transport tag which will get him on the truck but is a lot less likely than some of the other characters to put up with her shit and the movie really comes alive whenever he’s on screen both because of the way he’s animated and his general attitude. In fact this movie seems particularly packed with quality side characters compared to other Disney/Pixar movies and is certainly better at that than the original Finding Nemo which was filled with nonsense like vegetarian sharks and whatnot. If you look through this movie’s IMDB page you see a staggering number of celebrity voice cameos and very few of them seem like stunt castings and are all integrated quite well. It should also go without saying that this is a huge visual upgrade from the 2003 original given the evolution in technology since then, and that’s certainly needed because that movie is really starting to show its age, but I feel like beyond that there just a lot more ambition in the way the sequences are planned and choreographed here.
Let’s look back at the last really well received Pixar movie, Inside/Out. That was a movie with a really clever premise, but I thought its adventure format was kind of weak and I had some philosophical differences with it that I couldn’t overlook. Finding Dory clearly has a less creative premise than Inside/Out what with it not taking place in someone’s head and being a sequel to boot. However, I think it works a lot better as an adventure narrative than that movie which would seem to make up for that… however, once again I’m held back form fully endorsing the movie by some philosophical differences with the movie’s message. For one thing, I think the movie kind of fails Hank the Octopus. Hank is a guy who knows what he wants, namely to not be in the ocean and to “get his,” and the movie ends up doing nothing but judge him for this. But that’s kind of a minor quibble. The bigger problem is the movie’s interest in a sort of clash in problem solving styles between Marlin and Dory. Marlin plans out his every move and avoids taking unnecessary risks while Dory impulsively rushes into everything, “wings it” at every turn, and never gives up on an adventure once she’s found a goal. Over the course of the movie Marlin is forced to not just respect Dory’s approach but to embrace it. The movie actively holds up “what would Dory do” at every turn as the superior way of doing things in pretty much every situation and that seems ridiculous to me. Yeah, impulsively doing whatever your ID tells you works fine if you live in a Disney movie like this where everything almost magically just works out for you but in the real world that is not how anyone should be encouraged to live their life.
Recently I’ve been looking back at some of the old movies that Disney made during its “Golden Age” and I’ve got to say, the experience has mostly been giving me a renewed appreciation for Pixar. Don’t get me wrong, those classics had some beautiful animation and they did a lot of pioneering stuff, but man oh man were they simplistic and prone to doing some kind of lazy stuff. For whatever their merits a lot of those “classics” make this look like The Godfather by comparison. As for its merit when compared to the rest of Pixar’s work, I think it holds its own pretty well against a lot of them. It’s definitely better than Finding Nemo and while I know I’m in the minority about this I think I might have liked it a little better overall than Inside Out even if I probably respect it less conceptually. Either way it’s certainly the work of the good Pixar rather than the iffier Monsters Univerisy/Cars 2 Pixar that was looking like a shadow of its former self, possibly because it’s being overseen by Andrew Stanton, who is one of their OGs. If it had just broken a little more ground gotten its messaging more in line I might have gone so far as to say it was one of their best efforts.