Pixar’s ‘Finding Dory’ captures the ‘Nemo’ magic swimmingly

July 23, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Pixar has a near-perfect record in pairing deeply emotional themes for adults with dazzling computer animation for kids.

So it was a major compliment when the American Film Institute chose “Finding Nemo” (2003) and “Toy Story” (1995) to represent the Pixar slate during its 2008 ranking of the Top 10 Animated Movies of All Time (“WALL-E” didn’t hit theaters until 10 days after the AFI special aired on CBS).

That’s a high bar for any “Finding Nemo” sequel to reach, but “Finding Dory” does it swimmingly.

Rather than lazily rehashing the original premise by having Nemo get lost again, Pixar smartly shifts its focus to explore the roots of everyone’s favorite Pacific Regal Blue Tang fish Dory, voiced at different stages of life by Sloane Murray, Lucia Geddes and the irresistible Ellen DeGeneres.

We learn that Dory has been suffering from amnesia since childhood, a handicap treated with loving patience by her adoring parents, voiced by Diane Keaton (“Annie Hall”) and Eugene Levy (“American Pie”). Years later, these same parents have gone missing in the great wide ocean, though Dory can’t remember exactly how. All she remembers is a clue involving “the jewel of Morro Bay, California.”

Thus, Dory enlists her clownfish friend Nemo (Hayden Rolence replacing Alexander Gould) and his worrywart father Marlin (Albert Brooks) on a mission to find her parents, a journey that leads all the way to the Monterey Marine Life Institute, where a number of obstacles — and new friends — await.

On the surface, “Finding Dory” appears to succeed by helping us remember exactly why we loved all our old favorite characters, from Dory to Nemo to Marlin, even a brief appearance by Crush the Surfer-Dude Sea Turtle (Andrew Stanton). But the real secret here is the introduction of compelling new characters that we not only grow to love but also genuinely care about by the movie’s end.

Ed O’Neill (“Married With Children”) voices Dory’s brave new buddy Hank the Octopus, who becomes the movie’s real action star, shape-shifting to camouflage with his surroundings and swinging from the rafters like Spidey, despite missing a tentacle that dubs him a “septopus.”

O’Neill’s “Modern Family” co-star Ty Burrell similarly shines as Bailey the Beluga Whale, who grapples with broken sonar, only to realize he’s got the “best pair of glasses” in the entire ocean.

Kaitlin Olson (Dee from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) voices Dory’s childhood friend, Destiny the Whale Shark, who constantly bumps into things due to a case of nearsightedness, but who ultimately overcomes her blurry vision to communicate with Dory via hilarious whale moans.

Most enjoyable is the “Wire” reunion of Dominic West and Idris Elba (McNulty and Stringer Bell!) as territorial sea lions guarding their sea-rock real estate. Their loud fin claps serve multiple purposes, first to chase off a cross-eyed intruder who looks like Ed the Hyena from “The Lion King,” then to signal their zany bird friend Becky the Loon, who looks like an electrocuted Iago from “Aladdin.”

But don’t underestimate these characters. Becky is smarter than she seems, Hank is more caring than he lets on, and Dory is never as lost as she thinks. In fact, the thematic throughline of the entire flick is to never judge a book by its cover — a good lesson for kids, or even adults in today’s political climate.

“Finding Dory” not only insists it’s okay to be different, it celebrates our differences as unique contributions to the great blue sea. Our differences aren’t something to fear, but rather to embrace.

It’s this can-do attitude that Dory’s parents instill in their daughter. Like Sally Field helping young Forrest Gump shatter his leg braces, Dory’s parents help her overcome her childhood disability of memory loss, providing supportive reminders every step of the way, one seashell at a time.

Hats off — or snorkels off — to writer/director Andrew Stanton (Oscar-winning filmmaker of “WALL-E”) and co-director Angus MacLane (animator of “The Incredibles” and “Monsters Inc”) for never losing sight of the film’s thematic core. To have literally every character overcome a subtle disability provides for an entire sea of character growth throughout the film, not to mention plenty of smiles.

From a directorial standpoint, the duo also finds unique ways to use the digital “camera,” from hazy amnesic flashbacks, to a terrifying P.O.V. sequence as Dory is ripped away from the oceanic rehab center, to a laugh-out-loud slow-mo sequence set to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”

Of course, the experience isn’t perfect. The script gets a little too cute down the stretch, throwing one too many obstacles in front of the characters, overplaying its hand with a truck on a highway.

But any minor story flaws are overcome by a hilarious running gag involving Sigourney Weaver.

We won’t spoil what that is; just know that she steals the show — without ever appearing.

Among the entire Pixar slate, “Finding Dory” doesn’t quite reach the brilliance of the “Toy Story” sequels — let’s face it, “Toy Story 2” and “Toy Story 3” are some of the best sequels ever made, regardless of genre — but it’s also nowhere near the letdown of the shaky sequel “Cars 2” (2011).

The better analogy may be “Monsters University” (2013), but even that is a disservice to the heartfelt entertainment that is “Dory,” which provides a moviegoing experience as infectious as Ellen herself.

Of course the film loses originality points. Fresh concepts are always preferable. But while “Dory” is no “Inside Out” (2015), it still mines plenty of truth from Dory’s fascinating “Train of Thought.”

So if “Finding Nemo” was a 4-star animated masterpiece, “Finding Dory” loses an obvious star for originality, then gains a half-star back for its pre-show short with the cute-as-hell Piper the Seagull.

From adorable shorts to phenomenal features, Pixar never ceases to impress us by taking its own advice. It doesn’t live too much in the past, nor does it look too far ahead. It just keeps swimming.

3-and-half-stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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