Brief, Shameless Self-Promotions
If you want to hear Sam Barnett and me discuss Finding Dory, Central Intelligence, and more, please check out our recent podcast episode. If you don’t want to do it for me, then do it for Sam, because he’d be the happiest man alive if he could watch and share his opinions on movies for a living. Dude loves the cinema. Our music this week was provided by Aidan Altman. Anyway, let’s get to it…
Finding Nemo: A film that means a great deal to me.
A Little Bit Of Background:
I have a deep connection to Finding Nemo (2003), in that it is my best remembered early theatergoing experience. I sat next to my friend Andrew Johnson at his brother’s 6th birthday party. We were 10, and the underwater epic put us in stitches, peaking when Dory revealed she could speak whale. While I’ve never been able to recreate that exact experience (trust me, I’ve tried), the film still holds up very well over time (just like every good Pixar movie). This has led me to believe that perhaps I didn’t like Finding Dory because Finding Nemo so firmly imprinted itself in my heart.
I think you better explain yourself.
Oh. Confused Italicized Occasionally Questioning Alter Ego. I forgot about you.
…thanks. How kind. Now explain yourself!
Okay. So I have a particularly poor memory; my first memory is of my 8th birthday, so just two and a half years before I saw Finding Nemo for the first time. My memory continued to fail me up until late high school, so the theatergoing experiences I can recall are few and far between, regardless of how many films I saw (which actually was not that many). Some of the other memorable experiences include: Shrek (2001), The Dark Knight (2008), Inglorious Basterds (2009), and The Hangover (2009). As you can imagine, I’m particularly careful around anything that could potentially harm the memories tied to that list.
Have other films harmed the movies on that list?
Absolutely! Any of the Shrek sequels, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), and The Hangover‘s sequels.
Sounds like you’re saying that you’re more likely to hate a film if it’s a sequel? Cause that’s not really much of a new thing to say…
It doesn’t limit itself to sequels. Take The Good Dinosaur (2015); that movie was much too similar to The Lion King (1994) and that made me angry. I have very few beloved childhood films, so the ones I do have I hold pretty close. Basically, if Finding Dory didn’t live up to my expectation, which was obviously colored by my love of Finding Nemo, I’m more likely to hate it even more than I legitimately should, no matter what my review says. All I’m saying is that’s what happened here, and while I’m sure Finding Dory is a particularly fine film, it just didn’t work for me, in part because of Finding Nemo.
So have we finally reached the point where you actually review the film?
CIOQAE, I’m working through some nostalgia, okay? Just give me this.
Okay, you good?
Yeah. Time to get to what went wrong.
The Actual Movie Talk:
Remember Up‘s (2009) brilliantly depressing opening montage? Finding Dory‘s first sequence is just as tear inducing, but infused with even more disturbing elements; while Carl Fredrickson lived a full, joyful life with his Ellie, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) lost her parents as a child. We know Carl will never get his beloved back, but Dory’s stakes are remarkably high, considering she could lose everyone, and thus all the new memories she’s been able to make, in the blink of an eye, sending her right back to her lonely life. High stakes are a requirement for any good film, but there’s something particularly dark when thinking about how many years Dory must’ve wandered the ocean, asking thousands of fish the same question and rarely receiving an affirmative answer: “Can you help me?”
Therefore, Dory becomes Pixar’s first true outcast protagonist. Sure, they’ve utilized outsiders before, most notably in A Bug’s Life and Ratatouillie; but Flik and Remy are only outsiders thanks to their creative gifts that have yet to be fully realized. The prospect that Dory could become an outcast again is almost too much to handle in a movie that tonally shifts in the other direction right after its opening. The transition in Up works because we find ourselves in a dark comedy, rather than a broad one like Finding Dory. Throughout the film, director Andrew Stanton attempts to yank out our adult hearts while satisfying our childhood sense of humor and joy. For me, the combination resulted in one of the more disturbing American films geared towards a younger audience, even if it went over every child’s head (bless them).
Despite all of this, Finding Dory also feels, to its detriment, much like an early draft of Finding Nemo, in that its secondary characters aren’t nearly as strong as those in the original. Despite a strong pairing of television comedians Ty Burrell (Phil from Modern Family) and Kaitlin Olson (Dee from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia) as the aquarium’s resident beluga whale, Bailey, and whale shark, Destiny, respectively, their characters aren’t nearly as memorable as Bruce the Vegetarian Shark or the insane Tank Gang of Dory‘s predecessor. This is perhaps due to each film’s outlook on the ocean: in Finding Nemo, the ocean is revered and feared by those who’ve grown up in captivity, particularly noted by the other fish at the dentist’s office. The ocean no longer holds that mystical wonder and awe in Finding Dory, as escaping only becomes an interest to Bailey and Destiny when their friend is in need of their help. The sea presents an excellent backdrop for drama, because a fish could run into all sorts of terrifying creatures there; the aquarium, by comparison, feels rather tame.
One of the more satisfying dramatic elements in Finding Nemo was the dual protagonist approach; while Marlin (Albert Brooks) traversed the sea, tracking down his son, Nemo attempted to escape the tank with Gil and the others. Though Nemo only had to reach the ocean just outside, their inevitable reunion was remarkably satisfying because both characters were active in reconnecting. Finding Dory is not without a quest for Marlin and Nemo, but this ends up feeling somewhat flat because Dory shows little interest in reconnecting with her clown fish friends the closer she gets to her parents; every cut back to the father-son duo feels more like fan service rather than necessary to the story we’re watching, as Marlin and Nemo end up feeling rather inconsequential until after Dory finds her folks.
Ultimately, and unsurprisingly, the movie hinges on Dory, who doesn’t quite stand up to the task of being a worthy protagonist. Yes, the moment in which she inevitably reconnects with her parents (I’m sorry if that’s a spoiler, but please, you should’ve known it was happening going in; after all, it’s a Pixar movie, so things need to end happy, and it heavily recycles Finding Nemo‘s storyline) is remarkably touching and heart warming, but Dory doesn’t have much of an arc, thanks to her short term memory. When all is said and done, Dory is still just Dory, a happy go lucky fish with an unbreakable spirit. There are moments throughout where this is put to the test, but there isn’t any real growth in this protagonist. The nature of her memory also serves as a convenient crutch to advance the plot; when things start to slow down, Dory has a memory that triggers her into action.
While all of this is somewhat disappointing, what’s most unforgivable about Finding Dory is its treatment of mental disabilities. In Finding Nemo, there are three characters with noticeable mental or physical disabilities: Dory with her memory; Nemo with his fin; and the flock of seagulls yelling, “Mine!” over and over. While Marlin finds himself frustrated with Dory and Nemo’s disabilities, it is only because he’s worried about his or their safety; his dissatisfaction never comes from a place of malice or bigotry. Unfortunately, the opposite is true in Finding Dory; two sunbathing sea lions, named Fluke and Rudder (Idris Elba and Dominic West) play mind games with a mute, dimwitted fellow sea lion named Gerald, and take advantage of the clearly “off” common loon named Becky. The treatment towards these characters is rather troubling, especially considering we’ve never seen something so inappropriate from the animation studio before. Pixar films remain some of the most formative to today’s children, and while all of their other films teach wholesome and relatable messages, this one at times sends one that feels more dated and inappropriate than any they’ve had before.
While what you’ve just read is mostly a list of disappointments, especially when compared to the film’s predecessor, Finding Dory remains essential viewing, and promises to make many people, young and old, very happy. It’s animation is spectacular, and would feel even more powerful if it weren’t for the film’s accompanying short, Piper, which is the most stunning aesthetic feat in animation history. There are plenty of jokes that land, and several lovable characters; but ultimately if you made 100 people watch Finding Nemo and another 100 watch Finding Dory, it’s pretty clear which one is more comedic, satisfying and impactful. And for someone who cares so deeply about the original, it’s kind of hard for me to get over that.
Once again, please listen to the podcast if you want to hear more, including many of Sam Barnett’s excellent thoughts on this film and others.