Andrew Stanton Disney

FINDING DORY Review: Teaching (and Forgetting) Lessons

Monday, June 20, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Finding Dory

Directors: Andrew Stanton, Angus MacLane
Writers: Andrew Stanton, Victoria Strouse, Bob Peterson
Starring: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Hayden Rolence
Rating: Three stars out of five
Available in theaters now

For certain people, the frustration of not being able to understand something goes beyond irritation. It is a source of constant worry and it often marks the start of self-esteem issues.

“Am I a bad person for not getting it? Will I ever get it? Am I stupid? Will my teachers still respect me? What about my parents?”

“Screw it, it’s not happening. I guess I am stupid.”

“I give up. How will I fail next?”

The pattern is a sad one. Regardless of how hard some people try, a subject -- for me in school, it was any math more complex than multiplication and division -- becomes a source of unending anxiety. “Trying harder” is not always the solution when the patterns in something are invisible to a person. But people with mental blocks, whether they are diagnosed learning disabilities or run-of-the-mill personal limitations, have to cope with and compensate for the things they can’t do if they want to be a functioning member of society. It may not always be graceful but it gets the job done.

That’s how Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a sufferer of short-term memory loss, gets through life in Finding Dory. Pixar’s latest CGI sequel, this one a follow-up to 2003’s Finding Nemo, takes place one year after the events of that film. Dory lives with Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) in their underwater enclave near Australia. She is a lovable annoyance, something of a burden to Marlin and Nemo’s stingray teacher, who begrudgingly allows Dory to be his “teacher’s assistant” every day. Because of her memory loss, she thinks she came up with that brilliant idea each time she shows up at his class. With an eye roll, he plays along, even if he is getting a little fed up with the charade he puts on to be nice.

That’s because Dory is a kind person/blue-fish. Her limitations may cause consternation among those who deal with her on a daily basis. But her kindness and in-the-moment ability to solve problems with gung-ho enthusiasm regardless of the potential danger inherent in such acts goes a long way. If she was a jerk, nobody would want to be around her to deal with her serious issues. And certainly nobody would want to help her find her parents all the way across the ocean once something jogs a long-term memory of becoming separated from them as a child. But because they love her, Marlin and Nemo agree to make that arduous journey to the California marine rehabilitation site where Dory was born.

And so Finding Dory’s stakes are set. A surrogate family must help one of its members find her real family, despite extremely poor odds of success. The trauma that gradually dawns on Dory as she begins to remember snippets of her life with her parents is heartbreaking stuff. The fear all the fish have of the humans who interact with them at the rehab site, including a thrilling sequence with children digging their sticky little hands into a fish tank, is palpable. Reunions with old friends are heartwarming, as Dory begins to realize the effect she has on others and how willing those other fish are to reward her kindness. She finds her path forward in life with the assistance of those who can do the things she cannot. That’s a powerful lesson to teach the children who are the movie’s primary audience. They should understand that, even when they are inhibited by one thing or another, they can find people who will have their backs if they are kind.

But Finding Dory is not always the perfect messenger for these ideas. In Finding Nemo, writer-director Andrew Stanton kept his eye on the prize at all times, Marlin’s relentless pursuit of finding and saving his son. He saved the catharsis for the end, which let the “will he or won’t he find Nemo” tension twist and twist until the audience could barely take it. With Dory, though, Stanton and co-director Angus MacLane seem to have lost that, and they stumble on occasion.

There are multiple reunions in the film. It is a conscious decision meant to reflect how scary Dory’s condition can be for her. At any moment, the things she knows to be true can disappear and everything again becomes new and frightening. However, as a dramatic device, it waters down the emotional catharsis the movie should build toward. Having Dory reunite with those she has lost mere minutes earlier becomes too repetitive for a viewer without short-term memory loss. These reunions become a crutch for the filmmakers. Dory loses someone at every turn, but don’t worry, folks, she’ll find them again before you take the next sip from your drink. It comes close to being death by a thousand paper cuts, weakening the film when it should be soaring.

Furthermore, Finding Dory undercuts its central message with the introduction of a sea lion who is meant to be nothing more than a punchline. His crossed eyes, bushy eyebrows, and general disposition read as “mentally handicapped,” and the two other sea lions in the movie make fun of him and use him for their amusement. It does not show kindness toward this character, using him only for laughs. It’s a suspicious choice to direct this kind of attitude at this character when the protagonist also suffers from handicaps and learns to overcome them.  

But every time Finding Dory seems like it is about to head off the rails, it finds its center. It readjusts with rollicking adventure that features dazzling technological advances. The Pixar team has long had a handle on how natural objects move, but now they have created an underwater world that looks much like the one you would see if you strapped on some goggles and dove beneath the surface of the Pacific right now -- except for the exaggerated cartoon features of the fish characters, of course. Waves crash as if they are truly directed by the moon’s gravitational pull, and falling feels as real as it would if you jumped off a dauntingly tall cliff.

This leaves Finding Dory in a curious place. It contains an emotional punch much like its Pixar predecessors. But it often undermines those emotional beats. It introduces lovable new characters, like the cranky “septopus” named Hank (Ed O’Neill), who would have continued down a selfish path if it weren’t for the sweet, forgetful blue fish he encounters. But it also has new characters who serve no narrative purpose and whose mere presence detracts from the movie’s main moral. Its understanding of how nature moves is astounding. But its narrative doesn’t move so much as stutters from moment to moment. But in the end, the lessons Finding Dory imparts are crucial to learning how to trust people and to forgive yourself for the shortcomings you can’t do anything about.

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