There’s some argument over when the Golden Era of Pixar, which started in 1995 with the first Toy Story, concluded. Did Pixar’s recipe for creative innovation and emotive sincerity last all the way through 2009’s Up? Or did it hit its first road bump back in 2004 with the good-not-great The Incredibles? Whatever the answer, there’s almost no argument that Finding Nemo (2003) sits square in the studio’s pre-Disney sweet spot, and not just because it had zero Randy Newman songs. That status would make the average moviegoer, who remembers clanking bores like Cars 2 and beside-the-point follow-ups like Monsters University a little nervous as the inevitable sequel hits theaters.
Fortunately, Finding Dory at least exceeds expectations, if not the original. As with any children’s sequel, particularly in the corporate-synergistic era when every popular animated property can’t just sit there like an exhibit on a shelf. Those characters need to earn their keep by delivering to the firm’s bottom line. It’s a relief to be able to report that they do so with much the same spirit of wonderment, easy humor, and teary-eyed sentiment that characterized the films that made Pixar the heir to the Disney mantle before it was acquired in 2006.
Finding Nemo worked a variation on the classic Disney formula of single- or no-parent children with incredible obstacles to overcome. The unlikely duo of worrywart clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) and forgetful blue tang fish Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) crossed leagues of ocean to rescue Marlin’s son Nemo from a fish tank in an Australian dentist’s office. Much as the sweep of The Lion King allowed the animators to present a living exhibit of natural beauty and exotic wildlife, Finding Nemo used the great quest to explore the colorful varieties of rare, wonderful aquatic flora and fauna from the Great Barrier Reef to the deep ocean. It was like the world’s greatest aquarium, only in film form.
There’s nothing in the lighter, breezier Finding Dory to match the dark chill of Finding Nemo’s opening sequence, where Marlin loses Nemo’s mother and the rest of his children to a barracuda attack. The new film does begin on a similarly emotional note, though. We see Dory as a tiny and even bigger-eyed child, working out her short-term memory loss issues — just about the only thing she can remember is that she usually can’t remember — and being fussed over by the parents she was separated from long before Finding Nemo.
Back in the present, Dory is still happy as the exuberantly friendly but spectacularly unhelpful and vaguely stoned-seeming co-parent of Nemo with Marlin. But her childhood loss keeps backing up on her, filling her with a nagging need to find out what happened back then. It’s a tall order, given that Dory can barely swim two feet without forgetting where she’s headed; how she manages to remember who Marlin and Nemo are is never addressed, of course. After some nagging from both sides, Marlin is convinced to leave the protection of the Great Barrier Reef and once again hit a ride on a current with the surfer turtles to a marine research institute where Dory thinks her parents are.
The greatest missed opportunity in Finding Dory is the journey itself. Most likely, the filmmakers — Andrew Stanton back again, this time with new co-director Angus MacLane — didn’t want to risk repeating themselves. But with the exception of a slam-bang chase scene through a wrecked container ship with a giant squid, most of the film takes place at the institute itself. This leaves the journey without much of the original’s epic scope, which helped temper some of the sentiment.
Still, Dory continually pulls back from its characters to emphasize just how tiny they are in a dauntingly vast sea. There’s a great perspective-shift moment when the fish have to cross a kiddie touch pool, which turns into a gauntlet of terror, with kids’ hands slamming down into the water to grab rays and anemones like mythological monsters looking for playthings. Also, the institute’s closed environment with all its different ecosystems provides plenty of opportunity for the introduction of new characters. They range from the gently comic gold-bricking beluga whale voiced by Ty Burrell to a wild-eyed, possibly bipolar loon bird and Sigourney Weaver as … Sigourney Weaver, sort of.
Spending much of the film separated from Marlin and Nemo, Dory is forced to rely on herself, as in any decent quest narrative. She makes friends with a cranky octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill) whom Dory terms a septopus since he lost an arm. Hank’s antisocial obsession with being sent to an aquarium in Cleveland where he doesn’t know anybody (“I just want to live in a glass box … alone!”) is played initially for humor and later for pathos, as the story’s familiar strands of ad-hoc communities and families weave together.
The film rattles through a car chase and multiple gut-check moments for an ever-braver Dory to a surprisingly goofy conclusion (Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” getting maybe its best off-key usage ever). But even though heartstrings are relentlessly plucked throughout, the effect is not as over-the-top as it easily could have been. This is particularly due to DeGeneres’s uncanny ability to deliver her lines with a simultaneous sincerity and a wry self-deprecating sarcasm that is as winning now as it was 13 years ago.