NEW YORK, June 17 — In Finding Nemo, Pixar’s 2003 masterpiece, the ocean was a vast realm of menace and wonder, newly charted by rapidly advancing digital-animation technology. The movie, a visual revelation, was also a welcome defence of risk-taking in an era of anxiety and something of a cautionary tale about the downsides of helicopter parenting. As often happens in adventure stories, the hero was occasionally upstaged by his sidekick. We rooted for Nemo and choked up when he was found, but the best lines and sweetest grace notes belonged to Dory, the absent-minded blue tang voiced by Ellen DeGeneres.
Now Dory has her own movie, imaginatively called Finding Dory, a merchandising opportunity for Disney and a welcome end-of-the-school-year diversion for parents and children. While it may not join the top tier of Pixar features, Dory, directed by Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane, is certainly the best non-Toy Story sequel the studio has produced. That may sound like faint praise given the startling mediocrity of Monsters University and Cars 2, but what Dory lacks in dazzling originality it more than makes up for in warmth, charm and good humour.
(Meanwhile, Pixar’s place on the vanguard of animation is affirmed by Piper, the short, directed by Alan Barillaro, that accompanies Finding Dory in theatres. A variation on the themes of Nemo, it tells the simple, touching story of a fledgling shore bird overcoming fear and facing danger. It also makes astonishing strides in the vivid and detailed rendering of feathers, foam and sand.)
Taking place, for the most part, a year after Nemo’s return to the reef, Finding Dory flashes back to its heroine’s childhood, when she was an adorable, popeyed, short-term-memory-challenged hatchling living with her mum (Diane Keaton) and dad (Eugene Levy). She wandered off one day, and grew to adulthood looking for her family. The revival of this quest sends her across the seas, and this time Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) are the sidekicks.
Not the only ones. Like other films of its species, Finding Dory is full of celebrity voice work, including from a number of television performers. Kaitlin Olson of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a nearsighted shark. Idris Elba and Dominic West have a Wire reunion — Stringer Bell and McNulty, together again! — as a pair of Cockney sea lions. Ty Burrell plays a nervous beluga whale, while his Modern Family father-in-law, Ed O’Neill, steals many scenes as a wily, grouchy, seven-armed octopus named Hank.
Instead of the open seas, Dory conducts her search mostly in the confines of the Marine Life Institute, an institution clearly inspired by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California that the filmmakers turn into a theme park full of mechanical ingenuity and aquatic cuteness. There are toys and tots, aquarium tanks and drain pipes, strange birds and the disembodied voice of Sigourney Weaver. The plot, like a theme-park ride, is both predictable and exciting, a fast-moving cascade of triumphs and setbacks, punctuated with humour and pathos.
But in time-honoured tradition, the movie also has lessons to impart. Nemo made the case for indomitability in the face of fear. Dory is more about the acceptance of chaos. Dory’s inability to make or stick to plans is shown, in the long run, to be an advantage. And her memory issues, played mostly for laughs in the first movie, take on a deeper meaning here. She and Nemo, who was born with a deformed flipper, are both people — well, actually, anthropomorphised fish, but you know what I mean — with disabilities, an identity shared by most of the new secondary characters.
In a way that is both emphatic and subtle, Finding Dory is a celebration of cognitive and physical differences. It argues, with lovely ingenuity and understatement, that what appear to be impairments might better be understood as strengths. The inclusiveness of the film’s vision is remarkable partly because it feels so natural, something that no adult will really need to explain. Children will get it, perhaps more intuitively and easily than the rest of us.
Everyone will laugh at the sight of an octopus driving a truck, a wild-eyed loon flying with a bucket of angelfish in her beak and the other slapstick set pieces. And very few throats will remain unlumped as long-separated characters are reunited. Maybe there are a few too many reunions. How many times does Dory need to be found? But the repetitiveness of the story is related to its moral, a Disney legacy reanimated by Pixar again and again. Solidarity and kinship are two sides of the same coin. “Friends and family” is a distinction without a difference.
Directed by Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane; produced by Pixar. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
With: Ellen DeGeneres (Dory), Diane Keaton (Dory’s mum), Eugene Levy (Dory’s dad), Albert Brooks (Marlin), Hayden Rolence (Nemo), Kaitlin Olson (nearsighted shark), Idris Elba and Dominic West (Cockney sea lions), Ty Burrell (nervous whale) and Ed O’Neill (Hank).
Finding Dory is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). A little scary, a little sad. — The New York Times