When I first heard that Pixar was making a sequel to Finding Nemo, one of its (in my opinion) better and supremely underrated films, I was equal parts excited and worried. Excited, due to the obvious nostalgic appeal, but worried that that’s all the film would be — a cheap attempt to cash in on its predecessor’s success with a weak sequel that would likely have less of the Pixar magic and more of the cheap jokes. Dory’s character in the first film had largely been one of plucky, memory-hampered comic relief. How, then, did Pixar intend to give her any gravitas?
Well, they did. Finding Dory is unexpectedly heartwarming, and Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) herself is given a real personality. Even her “short-term memory loss,” treated largely as a joke in the first film, is paid more attention. In Finding Dory, Dory’s childhood memories begin to come back, and with them the realization that she has parents, and was separated from them as a child. With Marlin and Nemo in tow, she sets out to try and fight against her own struggles with memory and to reconnect with her family.
Obviously, the movie does a lot of things right. Ellen’s reprisal of her standout role in the first film is once again filled with warmth and humor, Dory’s charm coming from that winking quality that imbues so many of her lines. Moreover, she switches fluidly from upbeat to morose, sounding especially vulnerable as Dory tries and fails to hold onto the scraps of memories she has to lead her home. And for those worried that this film is little more than a carbon copy, the setting is, surprisingly, not the ocean. It’s the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This setting allows the film to introduce many characters—Destiny (Kaitlin Olsen) the nearsighted whale shark, Bailey (Ty Burrell) the echolocation-inhibited beluga whale, Fluke and Rudder (Idris Elba and Dominic West) the mischievous sea lions—without committing to an overwhelming ensemble at all moments. But the real scene-stealer is Hank (Ed O’Neill), a grumpy octopus who wants nothing to do with any of this mess but, surprise!, ends up roped into Dory’s schemes. And her endearing, earnest nature ends up melting his heart, too. (Hey, it is a Disney movie.)
But then, why was the film only so-so? It hit all the predicted points, and a few more that were unexpectedly better. It should be appealing to my childhood nostalgia and everything, right? But something felt off. The film wasn’t pulling me in the way Finding Nemo did — and it’s not like Pixar fails at sequels, either, as the Toy Story trilogy proved. No, the flaw was in Finding Dory itself, which focused a little too much on calling back to the first film, and not enough on developing its own heart. We see Marlin (Albert Brooks) once again driving someone away with his own anxious anger, we learn where Dory learned to “just keep swimming,” and we even learn where she learned to speak whale. The film is full of these references to its predecessor.
But its so full of eater eggs, it has trouble standing on its own, and the driving force behind the plot itself is rather weak. Apparently, Dory’s parents sheltered her as a child due to her memory problems, and when she was swept away from them due to a mechanical mishap, she was unable to find her way back until her memories of her childhood start returning in bits and pieces. But unlike Finding Nemo, which lovingly showed us the affection between Marlin and his son, Finding Dory simply lays out the pieces. Dory’s parents are idealized and seen through the hazy glow of her flashbacks, but they don’t seem to have any real depth to them. They’re just placeholders for her goal. So it’s difficult to be too invested in her quest to get them back. It’s too surface-level.
That isn’t to say the film isn’t emotional. It is. When her memories finally fall into place and she finds her parents again, still laying out seashell trails in the hopes that she’ll find them and remember to “follow the shells” after years of separation, it’s incredibly heartwarming. I was bawling in the theatre—quietly, of course. But this moment is also the point where her parents become real. Prior to this scene, her quest just doesn’t deem to have emotional weight, and as such, the movie falters. It’s not a bad movie, by any means. It just feels definitively like a sequel, not a whole film.