Dir. Andrew Stanton. Starring Ellen DeGeneres, Ed O’Neill, Albert Brooks
Two things stand out when we talk about why Finding Nemo is one of the best animated movies of the past thirty years. First is the episodic structure of the narrative; Finding Nemo is, like The Canterbury Tales, much more than the sum of its parts based on the characters we meet while traveling, each with his or her own perspective or tale to tell. How Marlin and Dory interact with a smartaleck school of fish or a surprisingly helpful whale or the spirit of ’90s California in the body of a sea turtle moves the narrative far more than a series of hijinks and roadblocks. (And they have those too! Anglerfish and jellyfish and dentists, oh my!) Second is the richness of the main character. Before anyone was saying the phrase “helicopter parent,” Marlin was a helicopter parent. Neurotic, difficult, and frequently demeaning, he was also goodhearted and sincere enough for us to love him the way we came to love all those jerks Pixar hid under the jokes: Woody and Mike Wazowski before him, and Remy and Joy after. We could at once identify with his frustration with Dory (or Nemo) while hoping we would exert ourselves the way he does if, God forbid, we ever lost one of our children.
Alas that Finding Dory does not adapt the two great successes of Finding Nemo, but rather repackages the general plot of the first film to give the people another one of those, please. It’s clear why Dory was always a sidekick: the dramatic story of “woman looks for her parents after years of separation” is just hard to pull off when your protagonist is a ditz best beloved for speeches featuring the phrase “And he will be my Squishy.” This isn’t to say that this story couldn’t exist and be done well, but to point out that Dory has always been a mediocre vehicle for creating either positive (“I look at you – and I’m home“) or negative (lifeless body floating away from jellyfish) tension. Finding Dory is just empty of any real drama, and it works much too hard to achieve it.
The episodic nature of Finding Nemo works best through the introduction of other characters, but Finding Dory is much too scared to lose the new characters it introduces. Destiny the whale shark (Kaitlin Olson) and Bailey the beluga (Ty Burrell) appear and reappear, performing much the same roles in each scene. (In the way that La La Land creates a perfect statement of what the film does when Emma Stone flops on her face in front of a picture of Ingrid Bergman, so too does Finding Dory create that image when we watch Destiny endlessly bump into her exhibit.) Destiny exists to “speak whale” to Dory, a joke repeated so often that it makes me wish that no one had ever dreamed up “speaking whale,” and Bailey is a useful tool thanks to his echolocation. There seems to be only one good reason to introduce Fluke and Rudder (Idris Elba and Dominic West), and that’s to set up some excellent Finding Dory/The Wire crossover fanfic. The bad reason, of course, is that I’m sure they’ve sold a whole bunch of Fluke and Rudder toys in the past year or so. Personally, my favorite new character was Becky, the mute and slightly bizarre loon who carries Marlin and Nemo around in a bucket of water.
Hank (O’Neill), a gruff octopus intent on being sent to an aquarium in Cleveland to live out the rest of his days, is the only new character with the gift of language one can come to root for. He Marlins better than Marlin does in this movie; just as Marlin comes to appreciate Dory’s intuition and fly by wire personality in Finding Nemo, Hank does here. Hoping to get her orange tag which will send its wearer to Cleveland (though one wonders why someone as adept in camouflage as Hank will need it at all), he helps to return her to the exhibit she came from largely by following her lead, exhibiting the movie’s unusual skill of combining humor and horror. In one sequence, Finding Dory redrafts a scene from Toy Story 3, where a horde of grabby children does a bad job being nice to the ocean life and scare the ink out of Hank. We do feel for him – it’s been established that he is missing a tentacle and doesn’t want to be touched – and in this scene, even when Hank isn’t on screen, he’s not far from our minds. It turns out to be an effective route to Dory’s exhibit despite the fear it inspires in Hank, and he comes to appreciate her bravery and the charmed effectiveness of her spontaneity over time. Ed O’Neill’s voice has never been as soft or supportive as it is when he dumps Dory from her coffee pot into the exhibit where she was born.
Finding Dory, by dint of its setting, is less visually appealing than Nemo despite the original’s outdated animation; an aquarium simply does not compare to the Pacific Ocean in terms of scenery. What’s missing in overall setting is made up for, in its own way, with the wonderful detail they work out for Hank. He provides them a way to show texture; he has a knobbly sort of look about him which strongly contrasts the smooth vertebrates he associates with. I also like how surreal Hank occasionally becomes when he swings from the rafters using his tentacles like arms, or how he impersonates a baby as best he can in a stroller. His camouflage is probably the most interesting visual element of the entire film, and his ability to impersonate just about anything, from a wall to a blue tang, is invaluable to the plot. Between his brusqueness and his supernatural talent, Hank is the only character who has the panache and pathos that one hopes for from this Finding Nemo track.
Ironically, the best part of Finding Nemo weighs Finding Dory down like a brick. Failing to include Marlin and Nemo in a sequel is borderline suicidal, but I am hard-pressed to see how their presence improved Finding Dory at all. Marlin is much the same as he always was, which is incredible; he swam all the way to Sydney, found his son after a harrowing sequence of events, put himself in contact with all manner of creatures he never would have met otherwise, and he’s still the same guy? It takes Nemo (still depressingly young) to push his father to do things the way that Dory would, to stop overanalyzing every situation, to look on the bright side a little bit. We’ve seen that movie already, but better. Finding Dory cannot raise the stakes in the same way that Finding Nemo does – Marlin searching for an adult Dory is just doesn’t have the resonance of searching for his child – and it does not provide a real foil for Marlin. Dory manages to defuse much of Marlin’s worrying (and much of ours) with her cheerfulness and resolution. Nemo has none of the joy or humor of Dory, and so Marlin’s worrying is compounded with his son telling him to calm the heck down. I don’t think there’s a single scene in Finding Dory where Marlin is enjoyable or even interesting, which, when we think about the lineage of characters he comes from, is evidence of disinterest or disregard.