Monday, June 20, 2016

Just Keep Swimming

Year: 2016
Director: Andrew Stanton & Angus MacLane
Cast: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O'Neill
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

So, Pixar. Not something that has been talked about frequently on Popcorn Culture despite its prominence in the blogger’s childhood. Let’s get into it, shall we? The groundbreaking studio that combines digital animation with humor and heart has been in a very weird creative space lately. As every animation studio and their mother have hopped on the computer-generated train (including Pixar’s literal parent, the Disney company), Pixar has been having a harder and harder time keeping their heads above the creative water.

Obviously, with films like Up and Toy Story 3 in their recent repertoire, Pixar hasn’t exactly fallen behind the curve, but for every glittering gem they produce they’ve also been bogged down by patently anonymous entries like Brave and (god help us) The Good Dinosaur, or lesser franchise fare like Cars 2 or Monsters University. Their most recent feature Inside Out has definitely boosted their credibility once more (seriously, let’s just pretend The Good Dinosaur doesn’t exist – it’s easy because I guarantee you haven’t seen it), but in the buildup to Finding Dory it was hard not to be a little nervous.

A thirteen-years-later sequel to one of their most beloved films that also acts as a  spin-off about an endearing sidekick with a one-note personality? That’s like mixing a bowl of plastic explosives using a stick of dynamite. It’s a recipe for disaster. But here we are. It has arrived. It’s in theaters, ripping through the box office like a money-devouring golem. So… How is it?

You’ll find out after this word from our sponsors.

In Finding Dory, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) is a blue tang suffering from short-term memory loss. After helping the clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) find his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence, replacing the original actor, who is like 80 years old by this point), memories begin to surface of her own parents (Diane Keaton & Eugene Levy, who at this point has been an onscreen father to pretty much every living actor). She sets out to find them, but her slippery memory provides a mounting challenge. She, Marlin, and Nemo end up at a marine research institute, a  rehabilitation center/aquarium where Dory was born. The adventure might not be as large-scale as the cross-country trek of Finding Nemo, but travelling between he exhibits is tougher than it sounds when you’re just a lil fish with a spotty memory.

When Dory and the clownfish get separated, she must rely on new and old friends like Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a nearsighted whale shark, Hank (Ed O’Neill), a grumpy octopus, and – eventually – herself.

There might be other fish in the sea, but none of them are quite like Dory.

As with any review of a Pixar feature, we must begin with a slight interruption to discuss The Short. This short in particular, “Piper,” is such a vast improvement upon last year’s treacly mess “Lava” that just the first frame is enough to bring tears to one’s eyes. Set at a beach, where a baby sand piper is learning how to hunt for food while facing its fear of the ocean, it’s a stunning piece of work. The story is lean, simple, and charming, but the animation is the true standout, an unparalleled achievement in photorealistic digital imaging that consigns all competitors into oblivion. The ocean… The feathering on the birds… The sand! Oh, I could rhapsodize about that perfectly replicated sand for hours. It’s a beautiful piece, capturing the look and feel of reality while delicately blending it with the rounded edges and welcoming cuteness of a cartoon. It’s brilliant and I won’t hear a word against it.

Now, about that pesky movie it’s attached to. Honestly, it’s pretty good. Pixar isn’t knocking on the door of a second Golden Age, but they’re at least not coasting anymore. Finding Dory is playing in the shallows, but it’s having a lot of fun. With its small-scale setting comes small-scale themes (plenty of family movie standbys: the power of friendship and/or family, believing in oneself, all that good stuff) and small-scale characters (the only new character given any depth whatsoever is the surly Hank, who is welded onto an Odd Couple arc older than cinema itself), but it’s still bursting with energy like a 5-year-old who figured out the child locks on the Oreo cupboard.

Perhaps the most significant thing about Finding Dory is that it’s practically immune to sequelitis. Although there are a handful of intensely pandering moments (we get an origin story for the “Just Keep Swimming” song, which is about as patently useless as finding out how Professor X went bald), this movie isn’t just a Finding Nemo greatest hits collection. Returning characters are integrated fairly well into the new story in places where they organically belong. OK, a cameo by the surfer turtles is a little unpleasant, but justified. And the movie never really figures out what to do with Marlin and Nemo until the third act. But we’re thankfully not forced through a gauntlet of grotesqueries, with doppelgänger scenes visiting the vegetarian sharks, the aquarium escapees, the dentist’s daughter, and so on. Finding Dory is well aware of its history and its universe, but it rarely feels the need to repeat itself.

Which is ironic, considering that’s pretty much Dory’s M.O.

So much of Finding Dory is new, and while none of it is quite on the level of the original plot and characters, could it ever be? The new side characters here are bright and fun even if they’re not so engaging, and a pair of lounging sea lions are an excellent substitute for the much-beloved seagulls. And everything that isn’t new is classic Pixar, which ain’t a bad place to be. There’s plenty of humor derived from the anthropomorphic nature of our inhuman leads, depicting in increasingly wacky ways how one might reasonably travel through the various sectors of an aquarium when one isn’t exactly inclined to breathing air.

And then of course, there’s the obligatory part that takes a machete to the heartstrings. The emotional moments in the climax feel a wee bit rote, but any time you’re treated to a flashback of young Dory with her parents, you’re going to wish you had gills, because otherwise you’re going to down in saltwater tears. Baby Dory is so devastatingly adorable and her separation from her parents is so straight-up brutal that the combined cuteness and sadness will overload our system.

I’m pretty sure renting your kid a Pixar movie qualifies as child abuse.

All in all, it’s a cleverly organized, silly movie about overcoming your disabilities and discovering your inner strength. The title Finding Dory isn’t just a franchise tie-in it’s a thematic manifesto. Whether or not it’s a truly great Pixar movie is beside the point. It’s a very good one, and we should be happy it’s around.

TL;DR: Finding Dory is a fun, energetic sequel that stays true to its story even if it's dealing with shallower material than its predecessor.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1190


  1. Yes. The Good Dinosaur is poop.

    That said, one shouldn't overlook "Sanjay's Super-Team," the short that preceded it, which already provided us with the post-"Lava" proof that Pixar shorts wouldn't all be terrible atrocities from here on in.

    I haven't seen Finding Dory yet, and am kind of on the fence about making the effort (at least, to see it in the theater); I'm not even particularly well-disposed to Finding Nemo. But I might.

    (That said, Monsters University? Lesser franchise fare? Man, that movie's kind of amazing, and for my money the last great movie Pixar did.)

    1. I actually haven't seen Monsters University, and I'm certain I will enjoy it, but in the grand scheme of things it ain't no Toy Story 3.

    2. OK, I did see Finding Dory, and I kind of honestly loved it. I think I liked it better than the first.

      It's no Monsters University, mind you.

    3. Fine, I'll put Monsters University at the top of my priority list. I deserve this ire