Finding Dory is…fine. It’s cute. It’s just not Finding Nemo, and that’s its greatest hurdle and biggest lack. It’s impossible to see this film on its own terms, as it, in title, in plot, and in character, depends on the earlier film for its backstory and springboard. It generally wouldn’t be fair to compare the two, except that the film’s raison d’ être is the financial and emotional success of the 2003 film.
The filmmakers are clearly trying to fill the piece with the little pieces of magic that Pixar knows how to do—that little last word in a scene, that final gesture that separates the good from the great in animated films of this kind. And the gags are cute and funny. They’re just not connected well to the rest of the film, and add little to it.
The reasons the shoes of Nemo don’t quite fit Dory are many. First, Pixar has taken the main characters (Nemo and Marlin) and made them supporting characters, and have made the main supporting character the lead. Because Dory was such a part of the success of the first film, it might have made sense to make her the star this time. The greatest success of this decision is what is getting the most press—the issue of disability and how it can be either overcome or seen as a strength. That’s a theme that is at least secondary or tertiary here, and keeps running under the main plot point of an adult trying to find her parents. It’s a delightful color to add under the story; pulling it out as a lesson wrenches the film in a direction that is more mind than heart, a weight this film doesn’t need to begin with.
The emotional center of Finding Nemo was almost too strong—parents in search of their child. If handled indelicately, Nemo might have been gut wrenching. The humor and energy of the forward-moving action kept that “parents’ worst nightmare” aspect of the film in check. But that ache informed the film from beginning to end, and the film resonated with unspoken angst throughout, enriching the whole film. Dory’s switch to the (grown and successful) child finding her parents just doesn’t have the same elemental anguish underneath it. We care—just not as much.
The best decision of the filmmakers was to keep Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Alexander Gould then, Hayden Rolence here) front and center here. Marlin’s dark but realist perspectives helped ground the first film, and do the same thing here, providing the contrast not to a young Nemo, but to a “disabled” Dory. Ellen DeGeneres’s Dory is not the supporting, humorous accent set against a cartoon version of a crisis, but is now the lead, and hence must be less the comic relief than the dramatic center. DeGeneres does well, but the reshaping of the character isn’t quite as successful as it might have seemed on paper.
The film is also darker than its predecessor—not quite The Empire Strikes Back or Godfather II darker, but almost. It’s certainly darker in tone, though less engaging emotionally. It’s also darker visually, with a surprising number of scenes on the grey side. The gorgeous, delightful, colorful ocean surprises that were part of Nemo’s charm aren’t here in the same degree.
We revisit a few of the earlier characters, but the impact of discovery is necessarily missing from Dory, and some of the meet-ups seem perfunctory. The new ones are…fine. There is also the change in set from the wide-open ocean—a source of all kinds of dangers and wonders—to a marine conservatory, which is far more limited in scope, and far less primordial in its dangers. The stakes seem smaller, along with the setting.
Of course the marketing machine that is Disney will make sure this is a huge hit, and most children will love it. For those interested in how to do a sequel, and how not to, this is a great study. Sometimes certain films just fall out of my head once they are over; I must confess that this one occasionally put me to sleep.