Did we need a sequel to 2003’s beloved Pixar film Finding Nemo? No. No we didn’t. That’s blatant just from the fact that Nemo is a well rounded and complete story on its own that helped solidify the power of story and ingenuity for the animation studio at the time. Then again, Pixar is the same studio that later thought “Hey, let’s see what the Monsters Inc characters were like in college and the cars from Cars would be like as spy cars” so any sense of purity has been out the window for a while. Still, the question remains: despite having no real reason to exist, does Finding Dory find some sort of new angle to justify its production? Could this possibly be the second chapter of an unexpected Toy Story saga for these Finding Nemo characters, surely leading to a Finding Marlin within the next decade?
Well, there are shades of potential there, mainly in the titular character of Finding Dory. As she did with her vocal work in the first film, Ellen DeGeneres finds a nice balance between being gratingly repetitive and a heartfelt misfit with her can do attitude philosophy as the forgetful fish Dory. She appropriately bring back the “Just Keep Swimming” song from the first film and implements it as a way to progress herself into being a more active character than her first adventure with Marlin. Dory managing to get past issues of her short term memory loss can be quite vague and convenient for the plot, but they at least promote a certain self reliance and determination that’s refreshing as Dory gets past repeating the same “I have short term memory loss” joke over and over again after the first thirty minutes or so. It helps that Dory encounters some of the better new side characters along the way, including a bitter octopus voiced by Ed O’Neill and a near sighted whale shark voiced by It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia regular Kaitlin Olsen who bounce off Dory with an appropriate mixture of arrogance and sincerity, respectively. The octopus is the animation highlight of Finding Dory, with his extensive camouflage and frantic tentacles creating the best gags. Then again, as they do with even their worst films, Finding Dory is pretty immaculate in terms of animation. It’s clear we’ve progressed rather far in terms of how these underwater environments are rendered in the last 13 years, with even more variety in terms of fish and coral reefs.
Unfortunately, Finding Dory does dip pretty hard into sequelitis territory with its other elements. The beat-for-beat structure pretty much is just the first film. Marlin having an emotional outburst that leads to another fish’s capture, a set piece based on our characters escaping death by hopping from one bouncing element to another and a climax based around Dory guiding fish back into the water are just a few examples. Even scenes from other Pixar movies are copied and pasted in, like the Kids Zone area that feels identical to the nightmarish daycare playroom scene in Toy Story 3. The aquarium setting has a few funny moments here and there, but the stakes aren’t ultimately as high when the various fish in Finding Dory can easily hop from tank-to-tank or go through convenient pipes. When our fish friends came up to dry land in Finding Nemo, there was an actual sense of danger. Now they can just easily find a water source, ruining much of any tension for those more dangerous scenes.
The bigger sin though is that Marlin and Nemo are much more underwhelming as characters, seeming rather stagnant beyond a base arc of “we should listen to Dory more often.” It doesn’t progress them as characters that much at all, especially when all of this seemed like a lesson Marlin sort of learned by the end of the first film. Much of their chemistry amounts to “Nemo is totally right about a situation, but Marlin is too scared to just let things flow and has to overthink it.” It’s as if director Andrew Stanton and his staff thought they had to give Albert Brooks his usual Albert Brooks style dialogue without ever truly evolving Marlin on his own or making him engage in a fun new situation like any of the Toy Story sequels did with their various characters. The side characters they encounter are also far more repetitive in nature, including two sea lions (voiced by The Wire co-stars Idris Elba and Dominic West) who overuse their territoriality joke far too much and a bird character that feels like a much less emotionally engaged version of the bird from Pixar’s previous film Up.
Finding Dory ultimately sits in a weird place in the Pixar canon. It’s nowhere near the heights of its predecessor film or others in the upper echelon of Pixar films. Yet, it isn’t crushingly disappointing enough to fit in with mishaps like Brave or Cars 2. Instead, it’s in that lower mid-tier around The Good Dinosaur, where it’s decent enough to watch yet not engaging enough to be memorable at all. Finding Dory isn’t the cynical cash grab it could have been thanks to a determined sincerity of its lead character, but it doesn’t have enough personality of its own to stand out or warrant its existence that much. It didn’t really answer any burning questions left hanging from Finding Nemo and even then the questions it did answer didn’t leave much of a mark on the universe. In fact, it sort of lessening the progression some of those characters had in the first place. Finding Dory ends up leaving about as lasting an impression as it probably would on its lead character: there’s an initial rush of excitement at discovery, but those fleeting emotions dwindle and dissipate by the time one’s eyes dart away from the screen.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Coffee Pots With Fish in Them