Review: ‘Finding Dory’ is a slighter sequel, but with some strong Pixar work

2016 has not been particularly kind to sequels at the box office, and audiences seem to be rejecting films that were overtly created to satisfy a studio need rather than an audience want, a trend I am happy to see. Pixar has had mixed luck with their sequels, creatively speaking, but seems to recognize as a company that story should drive these decisions above everything else. Andrew Stanton”s Finding Dory, co-directed with Angus MacLane, has to be considered a victory based on how well it justifies its own existence, telling a story that is built on a solid emotional foundation and driven by new encounters with characters we genuinely adore.

Finding Nemo is rightly considered one of the crown jewels of Pixar”s overall history, a thematically rich story that took full advantage of the remarkable technical muscle of the studio. Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres is one of the most unlikely comedy duos I can name, but they were perfect together as Marlin (Brooks) and Dory (DeGeneres), two fish who teamed up to find Marlin”s missing son. Warm and funny and emotionally devastating in places, Finding Nemo sums up everything that is exciting about what Pixar does as a studio. Finding Dory, on the other hand, serves as a reminder that Pixar is made up of human beings, and it”s not some monolithic perfect machine churning out one perfect thing after another. More than the first film, I can feel how hard everyone”s working here, and while the end result is enjoyable, it”s also far more overtly calculated than the first.

Let”s be honest… it”s hard to make a sequel under any circumstances. The real problem that Pixar has is that they”re competing with their own history at this point. It helps that they had this great defining characteristic for Dory, her complete and utter lack of short-term memory, which was mined for so much humor in the first film. This time, they open the film with an extended sequence in which we meet baby Dory, who pushes the definition of the word “cute” right to the breaking point, voiced by Sloane Murray, as her parents Jenny (Diane Keaton) and Charlie (Eugene Levy) work with her to make sure that she”ll be safe no matter what, and honestly… just typing those words… it chokes me up all over again. It”s a more subtle gutpunch than the opening of Up, but it cuts right to the heart the same way the single shot flashback at the end of Finding Nemo did. One of the things about Pixar”s story department is that they emphasize the fundamentals of structure, both for the film as a whole and for the individual set pieces, and often, they lay out how a film will end for you way before you get to the ending. Their films end the way they end because they have to; that”s how carefully they structure these things. They are great at setting up narrative inevitabilities that work because they satisfy. That”s what structure can do for you as a storyteller; used properly, it creates a satisfying sense of something coming together, all the pieces dropping into place.

There”s one main problem I have with Finding Dory. It doesn”t ruin the movie for me, but it”s still a problem. Part of what made the first film so special was the way it emphasized the vast expanse of the world”s oceans as part of what Marlin”s search for his son so dangerous. The second act of that movie is smart and thrilling and really travels. Here, as soon as they start the search, they narrow it down to an aquarium on the California coastline, and in one quick scene, they bypass the entire ocean. Once they arrive at the aquarium, there are some really great new characters and things build and build, with terrific comedy and action sequences, and the ending really does its job. Even so, I feel like this massive short-cut is such a big narrative cheat, clumsy in a way that is surprising for Pixar. It”s like a huge fart at the end of a flawless ballet performance. It takes nothing away from the overall accomplishment, but it sure does land with a thud.

Both Brooks and DeGeneres are just as sharp here as they were in the original, but Marlin and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) are side-lined for much of the film. There's a lot less of them in general. DeGeneres carries most of the weight of the movie, and she's excellent. I am an immediate fan of Hank (Ed O”Neill), an octopus who is determined to live out the rest of his life in Cleveland. Brilliantly animated, he”s funny and touching all at once, and his relationship with Dory is the real backbone of the movie. Kaitlin Olson (whose new pilot The Mick confirms that she is one of the great comic catastrophes working right now) and Ty Burrell both get some big laughs as a nearsighted whale shark and a beluga with a malfunctioning echolocator. Idris Elba and Dominic West lean into their natural accents as a pair of seals who take great glee in depriving another seal access to their rock, and they”re very funny. There”s even a fiendishly funny use of Sigourney Weaver. On a technical level, it”s gorgeous work, and comparing this to the original should give you some idea of just how far we”ve come in the 13 years since the first was released. There”s a short film attached to this one called Piper that is stunning, told with photo-realistic animals in a photo-realistic environment, with no dialogue whatsoever. It”s all performance, and it”s startling how good it looks.

While I can”t help but feel like there”s a ham-handed fumble of some key story points, Finding Dory does enough right that it won”t matter. Family audiences are going to eat this up, and I do think that when the film lands its emotional punches, it is remarkable. Say what you will, but Pixar understands innately that making their audience feel something deeply is the greatest magic trick in movies, and all of their work as technicians and artists are always focused on making that happen. Finding Dory may be familiar magic, but there”s magic in it all the same.

Finding Dory is in theaters everywhere tomorrow.