The world is not ready for baby Dory. More eyeball than fish, and more innocent than you can imagine, the younger version of Finding Nemo’s breakout character is impossibly adorable. It’s not fair. It’s also close to cloying, on the verge of annoying. The trick, as always and especially with PIXAR, is the execution. They know when to pull back, when to throw in a laugh, and when exactly to make the music swell. Without that, it’d be empty and obvious. Instead, it’s a reliably sweet adventure with a strong emotional pull.
After a Dory origin story, Finding Dory begins where Nemo left off. When Dory suddenly remembers the origin we just watched, the search for Dory’s past begins. It starts by feeling like we’re going to be treated to all the same beats from before. There’s Mr. Ray, the turtles, the show-off shot whizzing through the water dazzling the audience with CG-animated wonder and so on. This part is fine because we loved it in 2003, but it’s also obligatory and dull.
However, at a certain point things change. It doesn’t stop repeating itself per se, but it does find ways to hide it better. Instead of a tank full of colorful characters at a dentist’s office, we get Hank the surly septopus at a marine institute. Instead of episodic encounters with the dangers of the open sea, we get episodic encounters with benign and captive sea creatures. There’s a different pace, a different emphasis, fewer jokes, and more emotion. Which is logical since it is Dory’s story after all. I missed some of the wackiness (“Shark bait ooh ha ha”) but was still helpless against baby Dory.
The animation is typically above average, like you’d expect from this studio. And the voice work is great across the board. Ellen DeGeneres steps right back into her signature role with ease, while Ed O’Neill wonderfully crafts the next breakout character, and sellout toy, with Hank. It all builds to a fantastic finale where all the pieces come together beautifully. The story doesn’t stop where you would expect. It goes one step past. It’s one more impossible obstacle to have the characters really earn the ending. This extra ratcheting is the real PIXAR touch. Think of the airport stuff in Toy Story 2 or saving WALL•E after the day has been won. They make it crazier than it needs to be. Harder. So when they stick the landing, it lands harder.
I tend to have a distaste for animated family film sequels that assume what I want is either more of the same (Madagascar 2) or long lost family history (Kung Fu Panda 2, How to Train Your Dragon 2). Dory is simultaneously and blatantly both of those things. But, by shifting to a supporting character, and shifting everything else just enough in kind, it succeeds as the best possible version of an obvious and needless story.
Also – Attached to Dory is another new PIXAR short, Piper. It’s a very cute short about a young sandpiper learning to overcome its fears. It utilizes the “realistic” animation techniques the studio has been experimenting with better than ever before. It’s sensible, character and story motivated, not just showing off. The build-up isn’t quite as triumphant as it could be, but this is one of their better shorts after a few years of lackluster efforts. Best short since La Luna.