Finding beauty in imperfection has been one of the most pervading, poignant themes in Pixar’s now-sprawling catalogue. From Buzz Lightyear learning to embrace his toy-ness in Toy Story, to WALL-E’s heart outsizing his antiquated robot frame, to Sadness realizing she’s an integral part of her cognitive super team in Inside Out, the studio has explored this message of self-love from various angles, but never have they done so with the grace, humor, and directness of Finding Dory, one of Pixar’s most delightful offerings to date.
Indeed, Finding Nemo is one of Pixar’s crowning jewels, and with the sequel it again takes us on an epic underwater odyssey. Making the leap from supporting player to marquee heroine is bubbly, blue-and-gold surgeonfish Dory, voiced with compassion and sharp comedic timing by Ellen Degeneres, reprising the role with nary a misstep after a 13-year layoff.
The lengthy real-world gap between movies isn’t mirrored in the sequel, which takes place just one year after the events of Finding Nemo. A chilling revelation throws Dory’s world into disarray, as faint memories of her long-forgotten parents (voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) hit her out of the deep blue, reawakening a dormant sense of love and belonging she’d known once upon a time. The friendly fish’s character-defining short-term memory loss, once solely a source of comic relief, is now explored with more dimension and gravity; heartbroken, Dory enters into a state of grieving and borderline self-loathing, blaming herself for losing her family and even worse, forgetting them altogether.
Representing the experience and internal conflicts of someone struggling with a disability is a touchy endeavor, but co-directors Andrew Stanton (returning to the franchise) and Angus Maclane navigate the subject matter both bravely and respectfully, never pulling punches when considering the fear, loneliness and self-doubt that comes with a condition like short-term memory loss. Orphanhood is explored with equal care: at one point, Dory gets lost in the thought that her parents may be “dead”. It’s startling to hear that particular word leaves the lips of a character known for her infectious warmth and enthusiasm, but the moment is earned and raises the story’s emotional stakes to staggering highs.
Helping Dory on her quest to find her parents are her clownfish housemates, the high-strung Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his now-found son Nemo (Hayden Rolence). The trio travels to the Marine Life Institute in Morro Bay on the coast of California, where they meet new comrades, each with a disability of their own. Ty Burrell and Kaitlin Olson play a self-conscious beluga and a nearsighted whale shark, respectively, a warmly supportive comedic pair. Ed O’Neill lends his signature rasp to the most notable newcomer, a septapus (he was an octopus until he lost a tentacle) called Hank who strikes a shady deal with Dory. It’s a surprisingly layered character with a nice emotional arc, and O’Neill has more chemistry with Degeneres than just about anyone else in the cast, which is saying a lot.
What Finding Nemo had in spades was a sense of narrative propulsion, a virtue Finding Dory sadly doesn’t share. While most of the scenarios are fresh and inventive, the greater shape of this second underwater journey is largely similar to the original, only less inspired. But the movie makes up for its lack of plot momentum with a relentless string of jokes, which moves the story along in its own way. Visual gags, pitch-perfect comedic dialogue, and some hilarious situations involving the imperious Marlin’s comfort zone getting violently invaded make this one of the funniest, most entertaining things Pixar’s ever made. Also helping in that regard are the visuals; the studio continues to up its game, utilizing evocative lighting, subtle-but-stunning effects and virtuosic animation (Hank’s undulating movement is a marvel) to view this big blue marble we call home from a new, wondrously small-scale perspective.
As our heroes are limbless and squishy and essentially unable to partake in most traditional action scenarios, virtually all of the thrills and spills involve some kind of chase. The second act, set in the Institute, is almost exclusively made up of frantic getaways from humans big and small across multiple exhibits; cleverly conceived and eye-popping as they are, chase fatigue starts to set in after the fourth or fifth narrow escape.
Still, what makes Finding Dory special is its emotional core, which revolves not around her long lost parents or her bond with her new, chosen family, but around her ever-growing confidence and love in who she is, memory loss, motormouth and all. Her capacity for love and charity is immeasurable, and the moment she realizes that is the moment she emerges as the true hero she is, particularly to audience members who live with disabilities themselves. Dory’s a lost soul at the movie’s outset, constantly apologizing for the way her brain works; by the time we arrive at the heartfelt conclusion, she’s learned to be proud of it.