Does it offer the charming perfection of a “Toy Story” sequel or the token mediocrity of a “Cars” sequel?
That was the question looming over the follow-up to “Finding Nemo,” which surfaced 13 years ago as one of Pixar’s most beloved features.
Thankfully, “Finding Dory” ranks with “Toy Story 3” as the animation studio’s strongest sequel. The underwater tale manages to be both immersive and buoyant.
But what really makes the film “unforgettable” (also the last word spoken onscreen) is the subtext of the story. “Finding Dory” serves as a metaphor for dealing with a special needs child. Much of this fish tale focuses on the patience, tolerance and love needed to raise an individual with learning disabilities.
Whereas the blue tang fish’s forgetfulness was played for laughs in “Nemo,” it’s treated quite differently in the sequel.
“Hi, I’m Dory. I suffer from short-term memory loss,” are the first words spoken during a flashback scene of her childhood.
Dory’s parents (voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) try all kinds of approaches to help their daughter (adorably voiced at this age by Sloane Murray) deal with ocean perils. But she’s a creature of easily distracted whimsy. Before long, she’s separated from her kin and home waters. Worse, soon she doesn’t remember either of them.
All this information is lost to the adult Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) until a stray memory darts back into her head. So off she goes on an adventure to piece together her heritage. Now the lead and supporting roles are reversed, with prudent clown fish Marlin (Albert Brooks) and emboldened son Nemo (Hayden Rolence, taking over for the grown Alexander Gould) aiding Dory’s quest to reunite with loved ones.
Uncovering clues proves even more challenging when the hero has scant ability to remember stuff for more than a few moments. Thus, “Finding Dory” often functions like a kid-friendly version of “Memento.”
“I forget. It’s what I do best,” Dory says. “Ideas leave my head. Thoughts change.”
But the ever-optimistic Dory also believes “the best things happen by chance.” And the movie (co-written and co-directed by Andrew Stanton, creator of the original) continually finds a way to organically tie together individuals from opposite sides of the world and incidents from different timelines into a satisfying, cohesive whole.
Stanton and co-writers Victoria Strouse and Bob Peterson don’t simply resurrect the same faces for a cash-grab retread. Sure, those one-word seagulls return (“Mine! Mine! Mine!”), as does the irritating surfer turtle (voiced by Stanton).
But the rest of the time they assemble fresh personalities. Among the many highlights are two cockney sea lions (“The Wire” co-stars Idris Elba and Dominic West) who guard their rock against others looking for a place to sun, like soccer hooligans defending their favorite seats at the pub.
Best of the bunch is Hank (Ed O’Neill of “Modern Family”), an opportunistic octopus with chameleon-like abilities who partners with Dory to escape the Marine Life Institute where much of the action takes place. Technically, he’s a “septopus” after losing a limb. He has also lost a bit of his compassion, which the good-natured Dory helps him regain.
Along with the vibrant visuals for which Pixar remains unrivaled, the movie puts so much effort into the throwaway comic details, from a kids touch pool, shot from the perspective of the shell-shocked underwater inhabitants (evoking the Caterpillar Room scene in “Toy Story 3”), to the motorized plastic fish that keeps banging into Marlin in a tourist shop tank.
As with any sequel, familiarity can seem as constrictive as comforting. “Finding Dory” may not appear quite as astounding as its iconic predecessor, yet the film and its message remain memorable in their own distinctive way.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated PG. Time: 1:35.
3-D or not 3-D
The 3-D neither adds nor subtracts to the experience. Aside from one in-your-face punchline involving the film’s foulest character, it mainly functions as a way to separate the dense visual palette.