When you have kids, one of the secret pleasures is getting the excuse to take them to see “children’s movies” that you’re secretly wanting to see anyway, without feeling like a weird adult sitting with a bunch of children. Sure, that means you end up sitting through some Hotel Transylvania 2‘s along the way…but it also means that you get an excuse to see every new Pixar movie. And when you’re a studio that’s managed to only make two weak films out of 17 releases, that’s no small thing.
With that being said, there’s no denying that Pixar hasn’t quite been able to pack the reliable magic it once did. Setting aside the magnificent Inside Out, the studio has been turning out either sequels or less successful standalone films for a while now (maybe since 2010, when Toy Story 3 was released), and while most have been fine…well, “fine” isn’t what you tend to hope for when you see a Pixar film. They’ve been a victim of their own success, to no small degree. And let’s be honest: an over-reliance on sequels for a studio which soared with originality for so long has been a bit disappointing.
So now comes Finding Dory, another sequel. But with it also comes the return of Andrew Stanton, the man behind some of the studio’s best films (including their best, Wall-E), as well as a return to a pretty beloved original film. Add to that my personal love for Albert Brooks and Ed O’Neill (who return as Marlin and appear in a major role, respectively), and that’s a lot of good signs.
Turns out, Finding Dory deserves those good signs and then some, delivering one of the most enjoyable of all of the Pixar sequels, as well as a movie that works on its own terms, and doesn’t just rely on the original for its good will. (As much as I enjoyed Monsters University, that was definitely the case there.) More than that, though, it’s a reminder of how original Pixar is when it comes to the messages they choose to deliver. In a marketplace where most kids’ movies tell the importance of being yourself, or standing tall, not many would do what Finding Dory does: show what it’s like to live with a disability, and what it’s like to raise a child with one.
Mind you, as with all of the best Pixar movies, you could miss that message, if you so chose. Finding Dory is first and foremost a comedic adventure, and it handles both halves of that title wonderfully. Filling the world with a wide assortment of great characters and sharp gags, giving them great dialogue and interesting personalities, and imbuing every element of the world with personality and charm, Finding Dory reminds you of how, really, no other animation company can touch what Pixar does when they’re on their game. As always, the graphics are astonishing, from the texture of different fluids to the attention to detail, and it says something that you barely even notice it anymore – it’s just part of what you expect from them. No, as always, the beautiful computer work is superb, but exists to support the story, letting the characters and the world speak for themselves and come to life.
It’s that story that really makes Finding Dory work, though. One of the things that hurt some of the other Pixar sequels was their arbitrary nature. There was never a sense that Cars 2 or Monsters University were stories that had a point, or much need to be told; they were there to play around, or because the studio wanted to make a sequel. But Finding Dory feels like a story that Stanton thought about, and a lesson that fit this world, rather than being forced in. In following Dory’s journey to find her family, as well as her own past, Stanton feels like he’s deepening a character we already love, turning her comic relief beat into something more complex and ultimately a little heart-breaking.
All of that, though, doesn’t keep Finding Dory from being a blast of an adventure, and a genuinely funny one throughout. There’s some fantastic new creations, including a pair of sea lions whose personality takes what could easily be a one-note joke and just makes it work for them. (In addition, the realization of who voiced the sea lions made for a great moment for me personally, given how they represent a pretty amazing TV reunion.) And, of course, there’s Ed O’Neill as Hank, an octopus – well, technically, as Dory points out, a “septapus,” since he only has seven tentacles – who runs into Dory and becomes part of the plot. Hank’s grouchy, gruff demeanor makes him a great foil for Dory’s unquenchable optimism, and grounds her character perfectly.
Finding Dory still has some issues, and ironically, the biggest comes from its nature as a sequel: in focusing so much on Dory, it never quite knows what to do with Marlin and Nemo, who always feel like a bit of an afterthought in the film. That’s a shame, and doubly so given my aforementioned love of Albert Brooks, who’s largely wasted in the film. Indeed, many of the links to the first film end up feeling a bit thin at times, especially given how rich and detailed the new material is. And yet, if that’s the worst you can say about it, that’s not a bad thing at all. And given how funny, exciting, engaging, and fun the rest of the film is, a few bad callbacks and one wasted returning cast member…well, that’s a price I can live with.
The short: As usual, Pixar preceded its new release with a short film, this one entitled “Piper” and telling the story of a little sandpiper trying to learn how to deal with the tides. It’s an incredibly charming and simple little film, one done without any dialogue at all and relying only on some photorealistic graphics to tell its tale. It’s the perfect example of a Pixar short – funny, sweet, charming, and likable, telling a simple story simply and doing it well. It’s not the best – it’s no “Presto” or “One Man Band” – but it’s a sweet little joy. And it’s definitely not “Lava,” thank God.