“Finding Dory” Advances the Original with a Harmony between Story and Structure

The latest film from Pixar, Finding Dory, is a sequel to one of the studio’s most-beloved early films, and one of the first with a true pathos, Finding Nemo.  The original often ranks among Pixar’s best, and one of the big reasons was the character of Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres.  The filmmakers thought that this character (who suffers from short-term memory loss) was a good one, so they chose her to headline her own film.  Ancillary characters don’t always make great focal points, so there were a lot of people worried about this one, but it was all unwarranted.  Finding Dory  is very good, introduces a number of interesting and distinct characters,  and further develops the themes of family, friendship, and belonging of the original.  It acts as a wonderful companion piece to the original on account of the fantastic union of story structure, plot, and themes – all hallmarks of Pixar.

From a basic plot standpoint, this film is similar to the original but told in a different way.  It starts on another cold open from the past, this time focusing on a baby Dory and her parents.  We see her struggling with her memory problems but her parents are determined to help her out, generally with clever songs or little tricks.  In the present, Dory’s memory of one of the songs triggers the feeling that she has lost her parents and they are looking for her.  Marlin, Nemo, and Dory answer this call to action, and they cross the ocean to arrive at a marine research facility where Dory was born.  There, Dory is separated from the clownfish and must continue the search inside the research facility.

The three main characters are really the only returners with any substance.  Marlin and Nemo have not advanced too much from the first film, and their characters are pretty much the same. Unfortunately,  Nemo is a little under-used in this film, suggesting that he and Marlin are definitely worse side-kicks than Dory was in the first film.  Essentially, Nemo exists only to chastise Marlin for becoming frustrated with Dory, so he can come off as a little annoying.  He does empathize with Dory in this story, though – as he was the one who lost his parent in the first film.

Marlin does much more – he makes the major decisions in the pursuit of Dory and actually has something of a character arc.  His plight and interest in the story mostly involves knowing what losing family is like.  Secretly, he empathizes much more with Dory’s parents, who he has never met, so that is a bit of a missed connection.  Dory herself is perfect here – her character absolutely sustains the film and doesn’t feel forced or over-developed, but that is largely helped by the introduction of many new characters.

At the marine research center, we meet lots of cool new characters.  Hank the Octopus (Ed O’Neill) is the best, but we also get some seals (or sea lions?), a whale shark named Destiny, and a beluga whale are also very interesting.  Each new character has something to do in the story; they all have functions unique to their characters.  Hank is the strongest character, and is essentially a hard-nosed cynic who wants to stay in his safe tank and not in the big dangerous ocean.  He doesn’t really care much about Dory, but helps her mostly because he needs something she has.  Regardless, he is a great addition to the story.  The whale shark and beluga also function in the plot in cool ways, and give the impression that the storytellers were trying to make sure that all of their new characters had a reason to exist in the story.

The storytellers make conscious use of the flashback to lend this story a distinct feel from Finding Nemo, while still placing the audience in the mindset of the protagonist.  When the original gave the audience the complete traumatic incident in the cold open, it made it easier for us to relate to Marlin’s fear of losing Nemo.  He lost his wife and everyone else, so of course we would empathize!  If it had been hidden from us and doled out piece-wise, we may have balked at his over-protection of Nemo, and the eventual reveal may not have been enough to bring us to his side.

By contrast, in Finding Dory we only get small pieces of the story – and only when Dory has a specific memory triggered along her journey.  With this device, we are again put in the same position as the protagonist, but this fragmentation mimics Dory’s mindset, not Marlin’s.  This imposes Dory’s handicap on the audience for brief stretches, as we feel eager to “remember” the rest of the story immediately, but just cannot manage to do so.  Both films use unique time-based storytelling structures to steer the audience towards empathy for the main character.

Finding Dory and Finding Nemo share similar themes as well, but where Dory differentiates itself is in the treatment of mental handicaps.  Nemo deals with a physical “handicap” – but there is a subtle difference in his plight given that his handicap was largely self-imposed (because of Marlin’s fear of losing Nemo, which Nemo took to heart).  Where Nemo and Marlin had to learn that Nemo’s little fin was not something to hold him back, Dory has to learn how to overcome her disability through her other strengths – especially as a child.  Thus, where  Nemo has to learn that his handicap is irrelevant to his desires and goals, Dory needs to learn how to overcome her very relevant handicap through skills that don’t rely on memory.  This further entwines these two stories and casts them as two sides of the same Handicap Opus:  Nemo’s handicap is physical, and he must learn to look past it; Dory’s handicap is mental and she must learn to conquer it.

Cars 2 notwithstanding, Pixar has shown that it knows what to do with sequels, and that they won’t choose to continue the story unless they improve upon and develop the themes of the original.  Finding Dory certainly does that, and delivers some truly poignant moments along the way.  While the third act may descend into too much wackiness for the tastes of anyone who has hit puberty, this is a strong narrative with a unique continuation of the themes and story devices at use in the first film.  Ultimately, this is a worthy sequel to one of Pixar’s most-beloved stories, and delivers on every aspect imaginable, from themes, characters, story, and tone.  It will not likely reign at the top of Pixar’s canon, but it is most certainly not dispensable.

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