Saturday, July 2, 2016

Staying Close to Shore: Pixar’s Finding Dory

Finding Dory, the latest offering from animation studio Pixar, is set primarily in and around an aquarium/wildlife rehabilitation center, the Marine Life Institute, with the action rarely moving too far from the confines of that locale. In many ways, the setting mirrors the film's ambitions: it’s frequently delightful, but much more circumscribed in terms in scope than Pixar’s best movies, including its predecessor, 2003’s Finding Nemo.

As with Finding Nemo, the plot of Finding Dory revolves around the quest for a missing character, or, in this case, missing characters, namely Dory’s parents. Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, suffers from short-term memory loss, which renders her chronically incapable of remembering all but the most important information. The previous film played this for laughs, but this time screenwriters Andrew Stanton and Victoria Strouse take the risky move of placing Dory front and center, relegating her friend Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence) to supporting roles. Given Dory’s difficulties with forming memories, it might seem impossible to construct any sense of development in terms of plot or character dynamics with her as the protagonist. However, Stanton and Strouse make it work, turning the movie into a sort of detective story that pieces together Dory’s fragmented memories and eventually reveals how she came to be separated from her parents.

While many characters from Finding Nemo make brief appearances throughout the sequel, Finding Dory also features plenty of new characters, many of whose voices will sound familiar. Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy appear as Dory’s parents, Jenny and Charlie, while the denizens of the Institute include a self-doubting beluga Bailey (Modern Family’s Ty Burrell) and Dory’s childhood friend Destiny, a myopic whale shark (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Kaitlin Olson). There’s also Idris Elba and Dominic West (both able to use their real accents for once) as sea lions Fluke and Rudder, whose attempts to defend their rock from an interloper serves as a running gag that is in turn a callback to a similar joke in Finding Nemo. A fresher and equally effective source of humor is the presence of Sigourney Weaver, playing herself; she’s the voice of the pre-recorded public announcements at the Institute, and the movie uses to her occasional interjections to great effect.

The most significant new character is Hank, a “septopus” (he’s lost his eighth arm) who’s capable of mimicking his surroundings and slithering about out of the water. He’s useful as a way of moving the plot forward – almost literally, since this is a movie about sea creatures that largely takes place on land – and as a source of visual delight, since the animators constantly find new ways to reveal his hiding places and move him across the screen – in unexpected ways.

Hank also epitomizes both what’s best and what’s more pedestrian about the movie. He’s voiced by Ed O’Neill, who’s good but essentially reprising his role as the lovable curmudgeon that he’s perfected on the ABC sitcom Modern Family. It’s reflective of the general tenor of the script: enjoyable but cautious. Pixar’s strongest – such as Toy Story 3 and Inside Out or the openings of movies like Up, Wall-E, and, of course, Finding Nemo itself – work so well because they’re not afraid to engage with darker tones and themes than most other children’s fare. Recall, for instance, that Finding Nemo begins with the slaughter of Marlin’s wife and hundreds of her unhatched eggs, an event which is both shockingly bleak for a kids’ movie and an effective means of establishing his character’s neurotically overprotective attitude towards his one surviving child.

Finding Dory, on the other hand, plays it safer, mostly eschewing darkness in favor of an uplifting message about the resilience of family ties. Even the relationship between Dory and Hank, which is arguably the central character dynamic of the movie, swims through familiar waters: the wide-eyed innocent brings out the gruff, would-be misanthrope tender-hearted qualities. The script is perhaps most interesting in the glimpses that it provides us of Dory’s early life (she’s adorably, exaggeratedly wide-eyed in these flashbacks, and voiced by Sloane Murray) and the periodic waves of fear that strike her parents as they struggle with the unique challenges of raising her. One of the best consistent features of Pixar movies is the way that they’re almost always about something specific, and here writers Stanton and Strouse are engaging with the experience of those with special needs, as well as those who love and care for them.

While the script is funny but familiar, the visuals are often dazzling; at times, it almost seems unfair to judge most other studios’ animated films by the same standards as Pixar’s. There are plenty of visual pleasures to be found in this movie. There’s the way the light dapples the kelp forest that waves off the shore of the Institute, or an especially arresting and emotionally-charged overhead shot of seemingly endless trails of seashells, which serves as a powerful visual metaphor for the movie’s thematic concerns, or the endearingly bedraggled appearance of Becky, a bird who aids Dory and her friends. One standout scene involves a harrowing episode in the deceptively innocuous setting of a touch pool, where kids can play with starfish and other sea creatures; it seems like harmless fun, but co-directors Stanton and Angus MacLane transform the scene into a miniature sci-fi/horror film, with disembodied hands unexpectedly shooting down into the water to grab helpless animals. The climactic chase scene is also thrilling and unexpected, taking place not in the water but on a crowded highway.

Visual pleasures like these do a lot to offset some of the more predictable elements of Finding Dory, although they’re not enough to make it a great kids’ movie. Still, from moment to moment, it’s often very good, and that’s usually enough.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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