Once the vigor of that realization subsides, however, some of us in the movie theater must remind ourselves of inevitable boundaries: sequels (even those by Pixar) are hardly ever better than their originals, and in a window already crowded by follow-ups, the driving influence of many often has less to do with the adventure and more to do with commercial value. Once we accept these realities as part of the medium we live in, then “Finding Dory” begins to function as it must. The plot is a narrative loop recycled directly from its predecessor: a fish swims off the reef, gets lost and must be rescued by stubborn pursuers inclined to disagree on the proper route. Those prospects, even as part of a formula, are acceptable facets; the strength of the two returning leads (voiced by Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres) is of the quality that transcends ordinary storytelling. But then just as the movie appears to be progressing towards a relevant excursion, it faces notable setbacks. New characters flood the screen with little distinction other than how they look. The conflict escalates far beyond the bar separating far-fetched from downright implausible. The humor devolves into a series of awkward misfires. And just as we should be reaching the turbulent slope of a climax that will ultimately create new dangers for the characters, the movie loses sight of the nuance that informed so much of the spirit of the original.
Think about those fish beyond their physical characteristics. They stood for something relevant. Just as Marlin (Brooks) harbored the qualities of a stubborn parent sworn to protect his young, his friend Dory (DeGeneres) served as the joyous contrast: she was charming and lighthearted and energized the movie’s lofty goals with a sense of cheer. After a certain duration they were no longer just swimmers lost in the big blue – they were friends we enjoyed being around. If “Finding Nemo” was like watching that friendship blossom, then “Finding Dory” shows it going through the motions of a bond that has become tired and mechanical. That’s because she has a quest that allots no time for her silliness to intervene – the details are too urgent for them. And poor Marlin, now accompanied by the wise observations of young Nemo as an obligatory tag-along, possesses only a fraction of the nerve that drove his early endeavors. Together they all become involved in an ambitious plot in which Dory decides to track down her lost parents, a journey structured on fractions of lost memories that lead them to a fish and wildlife refuge that offers a host of new and treacherous dangers (not to mention a host of fresh characters both in and out of the water).
The gag driving Dory’s quest is repetitive: still suffering from short-term memory problems, she has little recollection of her youth beyond minor flashes, thus severely impeding her hopes of finding the home she once knew. The early scenes double back to her youth to show the predicament in this pattern; lost after being separated from her concerned mother and father (voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy), she is seen asking for help from any fish or creature that wanders nearby – at first as an infant, then as a child, then as a teenager and ultimately as an adult. Eventually that exhausting trend intersects with Marlin, whose own momentary dilemma – the loss of Nemo to a diving boat – will inevitably delay her years-long search for answers until present day, when a brief moment between the fish on Marlin’s reef causes a powerful déjà vu. Others follow, and against all the safe proclamations of her new dear friend Dory is driven to seek out the source of the voice in her head. Hers is a conviction that embraces the instinct of her kind, sometimes a process much more powerful than any memory.
The long and short of the quest is that Dory pieces clues of her past together in order to arrive at an aquarium, the source of her origin. There she becomes reacquainted with (apparently) rather old friends, including Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a whale shark who once taught her how to speak to the sea mammals (how this is discovered is, admittedly, rather precious). Also caught up in the mix are Hank (Ed O’Neil), a rebel octopus that agrees to assist Dory find her parents in exchange for help getting relocated to an aquarium in Cleveland, and Fluke and Rudder (Idris Elba and Dominic West), a pair of wisecracking sea lions who aide Marlin and Nemo in finding passage to the facility after they are separated from Dory during a rehabilitation mission. The park itself presents its own unique dangers, and certainly one of the more notable involves a scene in which both Hank and Dory are flung into a tide pool, where other sea creatures are put under tremendous anxiety by the prospect of being poked and prodded by the hands of young children above the water.
Remove yourself from the realization that this moment is essentially recycled out of “Toy Story 3,” and what “Finding Dory” basically has is a quirky menagerie of all the fundamental ingredients of a passable Pixar vehicle: adventure, complex plot situations, perceptive dialogue, tongue-in-cheek awareness, joy, charisma, likable characters and visuals that inspire wonder. The problem is that they don’t come together for an overall effect; they seem dispersed more for the sake of isolated moments of varying quality. That makes it difficult to care much about where the road leads in the final stretch, although the plot more than compensates in those critical final minutes: after Dory finds her parents, an attempt to reunite with Marlin and Nemo takes her onto a truck full of fish being transported to Cleveland, where she and Hank inevitably hijack the vehicle in order to save their dear friends. “But David,” you may ask yourself, “how can fish do so much when they are restricted to water?” There are convenient plot devices in place that allow them the dexterity to undertake such possibilities, needless to say, and the ones used in the climax are certainly the most ludicrous of any recent animated endeavor. Their saving grace, I suppose, is that they do eventually inspire one of the best laughs in the whole picture, and observing it unfold while Louis Armstrong plays over the soundtrack is a moment that must be seen for its uproarious audacity.
I offer criticisms to this degree not necessarily to diminish the value of “Finding Dory” as an audience entertainment – which is clearly is – but to highlight the progression of Pixar’s latest output towards a goal rather than a need. In their early films, there was a need in the characters to accomplish big things, and most of their adventures were not weighed down by underlying cartoon formulas; they genuinely took risks that existed beyond shallow waters. For many, that was almost in violation of the principles of modern Disney trends, which were generally the safer bets. But as time has progressed and sequels have dominated the studio’s lineup, the gold pots have become less common, the treasure more easily tarnished by the conventions of the audience checklist. That didn’t necessarily mean the films were bad, but certainly far inferior to how they used to be. Among a handful of the recent releases, only “Inside Out,” in fact, actually rose to the tradition of the earliest output. Here is a movie that will no doubt entertain the young audiences who have come to expect a plethora of sight gags and bright images, but for adults who were won over by the undercurrent of a touching father/son relationship in the earlier picture, this new excursion will mostly suffice as a two hour babysitting trip.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Comedy/Adventure (US); 2016; Rated PG; Running Time: 103 Minutes
Ellen DeGeneres: Dory
Albert Brooks: Marlin
Ed O’Neill: Hank
Kaitlin Olson: Destiny
Hayden Rolence: Nemo
Ty Burrell: Bailey
Diane Keaton: Jenny
Eugene Levy: Charlie
Idris Elba: Fluke
Dominic West: Rudder
Produced by Lindsey Collins, John Lasster and Bob Roath; Directed by Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane; Written by Andrew Stanton and Victoria Strouse; additional screenplay material by Bob Peterson