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Film Reviews Finding Dory is a sunny sequel that stands up to the original

Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, is the focal point in a challenging exploration of memory impairment.

Pixar

4 out of 4 stars

Title
Finding Dory
Written by
Andrew Stanton, Victoria Strouse and Bob Peterson
Directed by
Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane
Starring
Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks and Hayden Rolence
Classification
PG
Country
USA
Language
English

You will remember that Dory is a fish with a serious problem: She has short-term memory loss. Stick by her long enough and you'll imprint yourself in her consciousness – she certainly knows her pal, the clown fish Marlin, and his son Nemo – but much of her aquatic life seems to float by her in a puzzling swirl of turbidity. For all that she is a friendly and lovable character in a sentimental movie for children, the tangential, fragmented nature of her existence can give an adult pause.

And that is just one part of the genius that is Finding Dory, a sequel that betters the boffo 2003 animated feature Finding Nemo and provides more evidence, after last year's highly original Inside Out, that Pixar has finally emerged from the uninspiring years of the Cars franchise.

Since Hollywood considers every children's story as a franchise opportunity – what is Disney, Pixar's parent, except the master of spinoffs and merch? – it is tempting to conclude that a sequel is both an inevitable and inevitably lesser thing. Finding Dory stands that logic on its head, suggesting that writers and directors who have mastered one story should be able to deepen and enlarge their work as they make subsequent films in a series.

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In Finding Nemo, filmmaker Andrew Stanton simply used Dory's memory problem as an amusing quirk, the source of a running gag about her repeated questions and perpetual confusion. With scant understanding of the past, the little tang fish lived joyfully in the present, displaying a happy-go-lucky attitude that was mainly a way of underlining the anxious nature of the overprotective Marlin.

But in developing a backstory for Dory, Stanton and his co-creators now ask troubling questions about how she finds herself on the Great Barrier Reef and, as she recalls a faint childhood memory, they soon send her off looking for her parents on an adventure in which she then quickly loses sight of Marlin and Nemo.

She winds up at an aquarium in California – it's called the Marine Life Institute and is located in Morro Bay, but is clearly inspired by the real Monterey Bay Aquarium – and that is the second bit of genius here. The artistic foundation of Toy Story, the 1995 feature on which Pixar first built its reputation, was the toys' imaginative and comic attempt to operate in the oversized world of their human owners. Aside from its lovely depiction of aquatic life in the Australian ocean, Finding Nemo was similarly animated by a story in which the title character finds himself trapped in the saltwater aquarium of a dentist's office and escapes through some inventive disruption of the filtration system and the help of a pelican.

Finding Dory goes several better: The Marine Life Institute is a much larger canvas, full of potential encounters between land and water – or among human, mammal and fish. This time, Dory, Marlin and Nemo conquer not only the giant display tanks and their internal water supply but also the outdoor exhibits of sea lions and seals, and the staff offices and fish hospital behind the scenes – not to mention a gift shop, a splash pad and a baby stroller. They are helped by two bossy Aussie sea lions and one grouchy squid named Hank and, as Dory, Marlin and Nemo pop their heads up to chat with these creatures, you can just imagine the creative team debating how long a talking fish can survive out of water without overtaxing an audience's suspension of disbelief.

The plot – something about the institute's quarantine and a truck full of fish imminently departing for an aquarium back east – is complicated enough adults may have difficulties following it and kids simply won't bother. Perhaps all this info about aquarium practices has something to do with the politics surrounding captivity. (Ironically, the conservationist message of Finding Nemo was drowned out by the global demand for tropical fish as pets that the movie quickly created.) Narratively, none of that matters, any more than the exact details of the corporate bickering between Pixar and Disney that so delayed this sequel.

Thankfully, Ellen DeGeneres, the third bit of genius here, was still available to reprise her standout performance as Dory. Most voice work for children's animation demands that the actors, whether they are the A-listers so prevalent in the field since the success of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen in Toy Story or the unknowns who still do all the secondary roles, create characters largely defined by a single trait. Here, Albert Brooks sympathetically relaying the nervous Marlin, Hayden Rolence now taking up the role of the plucky Nemo, or Ed O'Neill dutifully revealing the cantankerous Hank's heart of gold, provide typical examples of the energy and focus that are required to make these gigs work.

DeGeneres goes much further, though, maintaining a delicate balance between Dory's optimistic personality and the hovering anxieties created by her imperfect memory. In Finding Nemo, she touchingly revealed how Dory sensed that she annoyed others with her inevitable repetitions even as she was unaware she was repeating herself; here, the tragedy of her memory loss is the emotional spine to the adventure as she keeps swimming up against her past. Will she really be happier to discover how much she has lost?

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This is a sunny children's movie with rather obvious messages to relay about Dory the fish, who tells herself to "keep on swimming" to find a family that must surely include friends like Marlin and Nemo. But the creators' unlikely choice of disability and DeGeneres's sensitive performance mean that, for an adult at least, there are regular flashes of the existential heartbreaker that is memory loss. Dory is a cartoon character worthy of neurologist Oliver Sacks.

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