Over the years, we’ve come to expect Pixar features, at their best, to function as delivery systems for laughs, tears and adrenaline. And even if “Finding Dory” is less of an assault on the tear ducts than some of its predecessors — I’m still not ready to talk about Bing Bong’s selfless act in “Inside Out” — it more than compensates in the other two departments.
Sequel-wise, that puts this follow-up to 2003’s “Finding Nemo” leagues ahead of “Cars 2” and “Monsters University” if not quite at the level of the second and third “Toy Story” entries. Still, the studio has figured out an organic reason to bring back the forgetful fish voiced so memorably by Ellen DeGeneres, and they’ve crafted a story that puts her comfortably front and center.
In the time since the last movie, Dory (DeGeneres) has moved in next door to her crotchety pal Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence); it’s on one of the young fish’s field trips to the stingray migration that she begins having memories of her own family. Raised by Jenny (Diane Keaton) and Charlie (Eugene Levy), who did their best to keep little Dory (Sloane Murray) safe and to show her how to find her way home, the small fry suffering from “short term remember-y loss” accidentally made her way into the undertow, taking her away. And the further from her parents she got, the less she remembered them.
Suddenly flooded with recall — and determined to find the mom and dad she assumes must still be worrying about her — Dory sets off with a reluctant Marlin and an excited Nemo to track down her parents. Their journey takes them to a seaside theme park and research center where Dory grew up. (There’s a great running gag about the actress who can be heard on recordings everywhere in the facility — as voices of god go, it’s a pretty great one.)
Naturally, our search party gets split up, but they all find allies: Dory gets help from Hank (Ed O’Neill), a grouchy octopus who wants nothing more than a solitary glass tank away from grabby hands, while Marlin and Nemo befriend a pair of slacker sea lions (Idris Elba and Dominic West) who hook them up with a seen-better-days seabird who can provide bucket-in-beak transport for the two fish.
The screenplay (by Victoria Strouse and director Andrew Stanton) is packed to the gills with close calls, ticking clocks and unexpected strategies – it’s a recurrent motif that Dory isn’t just forgetful, she’s also a master of thinking outside of the fishbowl, to the point where Nemo helps Marlin negotiate their way out of a jam by simply asking, “What would Dory do?”
Stanton and co-director Angus MacLane augment the hilarious characters — which also include a pair of bickering whales played by Kaitlin Olson (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) and Ty Burrell — with visual grandeur (who knew there were this many shades of blue?) and comedy, particularly from Hank’s chameleonic and contortionist skills. It’s a sequel, an origin story, and a celebration of what author Armistead Maupin would call “the biological family, and the logical family” all in one.
DeGeneres finds the well of loneliness within this jokey sidekick character, and her yearning for the home she forgot she had is palpable, but “Finding Dory” never quite hits that sweet spot of sadness. The film definitely pushes our buttons as it portrays loss and separation, but it never slows down enough to let us ache.
Even so, “Finding Dory” is rousingly entertaining, with side-jokes and supporting characters that will take their place in the pantheon alongside the “Mine! Mine!” seagulls and surfer-dude turtles (both factions turn up briefly here) from the original. In a year full of sequels nobody really wanted, this is one that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the first one; for that alone, it just keeps swimming against the current.