The one that got away

Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, in Finding Dory

Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, in Finding Dory

School’s out for the summer, so kid-friendly movies are needed to provide air-conditioned refuges for families on brutally hot and humid days. Happily, the latest offering from Pixar, while not quite up to the standard of the animation studio’s top-shelf offerings, is entertaining and touching enough to coax even childless adults out of the midday sun.

I’m talking, of course, about Finding Dory, Andrew Stanton’s long-awaited sequel to his immensely successful, eye-popping 2003 undersea adventure Finding Nemo. Much of what worked best in the original film is recycled here, for better or worse; and audiences who liked the first one will be tickled to become reacquainted with many of the original cast of oddball marine characters, from laid-back hipster sea turtle Crush (voiced by Stanton himself) to those incredibly annoying seagulls with their endless cries of “Mine! Mine! Mine!” Though a new child actor (Hayden Rolence) had to be recruited to play the little clownfish Nemo, Albert Brooks is back and in fine, fretful form as his overprotective Dad, Marlin.

Best of all, if you’re among the many who thought that the best part of Finding Nemo was Ellen DeGeneres’ fey, funny portrayal of Marlin’s memory-impaired sidekick, Dory the blue tang, is the inescapable fact that she’s now the star of the show. Finding Dory gives us her origin story, recaptured in fits and starts as various stimuli cause grownup Dory’s addled neurons to fire. She has flashbacks to her life with her parents (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy), who try gamely to equip their forgetful wee offspring with the survival skills needed for life in the scary world of the open ocean. But when baby Dory wanders into an undertow and is swept far from home, she doesn’t know how to find her way back.

Until she crosses paths with Marlin, in a panic to rescue his son who has just been scooped up for a dentist’s fishtank, Dory’s disability compels her to lead an isolated existence. And therein lies the moral of our tale: Pretty much every marine creature in Finding Dory has some physical or mental shortcoming that requires cultivation of other strengths in order to compensate. Learning to appreciate and make use of those strengths, rather than obsess over someone’s weaknesses, is the lesson that our heroes once again must internalize before all the mayhem occasioned by Dory’s sudden impulsive decision to go find her parents can be resolved.

It’s a joy to have this character onscreen through most of the movie, and to listen to Ellen DeGeneres talk Dory through one challenge after another. But the downside is that the narrative is in many ways a retread of Nemo’s disappearance in the original movie, and the hazards of captivity are much the same – though on a larger scale, as Dory ends up trapped inside the Quarantine facility of a Marine Life Institute on the California coast. As in the original, where Nemo must do some fancy finwork on dry land in order to escape from the dentist’s aquarium, much of the danger in Finding Dory is predicated on the need for fish to be out of water.

Luckily, Dory finds aid from an unlikely source with unusual talents for mobility and camouflage: a grumpy, traumatized octopus (actually a septipus, as she tactlessly points out) named Hank (Ed O’Neill). Hank, who is terrified of the open ocean, wants Dory’s Quarantine tag so that he can retire to a nice safe aquarium in Cleveland, so he goes to great lengths (including driving a truck) to help transport Dory to where she needs to be, in exchange for the tag. Although a great deal of humor is to be found in Hank’s disguises, the chase scenes do become a bit tedious and repetitive after a while.

I suppose that what I found most disappointing about Finding Dory is its failure, given my exaggerated expectations based on the improvements to animation technology in the 13 years since Finding Nemo’s release, to deliver the stunning visuals of reef life that I really wanted: something like an underwater version of the planet Pandora in Avatar. But Marlin, Nemo and Dory’s home base on the Great Barrier Reef doesn’t look much more snorkel-realistic than it did in the first movie, and the characters don’t stay there for long anyway. For my money, too much time is spent languishing in the murky, junk-filled, kelp-overgrown waters of Morro Bay or skittering around the Marine Life Institute’s pipes and labs and corridors.

The pacing of the story is also less smooth and propulsive than Finding Nemo; some of the littl’uns at the 5 p.m. screening that I caught started getting audibly restive not too far into the show. These are modest complaints, however. It’s still an enjoyable ride tagging along with the irrepressible Dory, who knows far better than most of us how to take life as it comes and follow her gut when experience and preparation fall short.

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