Monday, June 20, 2016

Review: "Finding Dory" is a Good Film Until She Finds Everyone Else

Scene from Finding Dory
In 2003, Finding Nemo premiered to the world with a novel premise and one character who stole the show. Played by Ellen Degeneres, her name was Dory and she was a blue tang with short term memory loss. No matter what she lacked in intelligence, her childlike naivety made her to Pixar what Minions became to Illumination Entertainment: an insurmountable icon. Her motto of "Just keep swimming" has become one of the studio's most recognizable lines of dialogue. It's no wonder then that 13 years later that the studio who with the help of a blue tang momentarily had the highest grossing animated film of all time, would return to the sea with Finding Dory and yet another novel premise: who are Dory's parents, and where are they? It's a solid showcase for Pixar's most beloved fish, if only everyone else would just step aside.

If Finding Dory suffers from one thing, it's familiarity. For a story that does an excellent job of exploring the impact of special needs children in our society, it does have far too many tropes that may make Pixar great, but also can feel like crutches in the wrong circumstances. In this case, Finding Dory is the third franchise to be launched to date from Pixar, and features a barrage of tropes such as the break-out scene in which Dory must escape an aquarium; the overly emotional opening; and it even features - even if unintentional - a third act plot that feels reminiscent of Toy Story. There's no denying that it would be hard for this sequel to top the emotional and awe-inspiring heights of the original's tale of a father learning to let his child grow up. However, none of this is necessarily the problem. It's that there's arguably too much going on.

Finding Nemo's best attribute was its dedication to a sense of realism. The story worked because the limitations of aquatic life made sense within the universe, causing new hurdles to arise at every turn. In Finding Dory, there's the presence of many conveniences that propel Dory from fish tank to fish tank in an ongoing quest to find her parents. The mystery and themes at the center may be pretty strong, but for those wanting consistency in established world logic will be greatly disappointed. The third act alone may have one of the most egregious and disingenuous leaps of logic in Pixar's history (yes, including Cars) in which an octopus is seen driving a car on a freeway. It makes for a clever visual, and one that may entertain those just looking for a laugh, but it feels stolen from a different universe. The issue isn't so much that Dory is looking for her parents, but that the writers of this film take the laziest of shortcuts to get there.

For what it's worth, Dory is excellent in this feature. In the opening minutes when we are exposed to her in flashback as a young, big eyed fish, we see her parents struggle to teach her basic techniques. What served as comedy in the first film now comes across as a sympathetic struggle that perfectly adds a dramatic undertone to the entire film. We understand the insecurity and why she sings "Just keep swimming." It may play like a kid friendly Memento, but seeing Dory try to remember her own life is full of wonder and tragedy in equal doses. While there's comedy aplenty, there's still the internal struggle of Dory: a fish who is lost and alone in a world that won't put up with her struggle. Even if Dory was obnoxious in the first film, she comes across as a real character this time around - and it does wonders.

The biggest issue lies in her surroundings, which almost feel like contractual obligations than legitimate quality writing. For instance, Marlin (Albert Brooks) is on his own quest to find Dory. While he made sense as the protagonist of Finding Nemo, he doesn't make sense as a sidekick here - choosing instead to get into wild antics just to track down his old buddy. While it would be appropriate to give him a cameo, his entire subplot feels needless and takes away precious time from what does work. Dory's naivety and sense of wonderment surprisingly works in large doses as well as small, and it's a shame how egregious things feel when forced to shift to supporting characters. There's plenty to like in the world that is created for Dory to explore - such as a perilous hands-on exhibit and two delightful whales - but she needs to get there on her own. 

What is most thankful about the film is that despite its many flaws, it doesn't feel specifically like fan service like most family friendly sequels. In fact, it continues to make the world a far more interesting place with new characters and a surprisingly poignant background commentary on ocean pollution. Even at their dullest, Pixar can't make a sincerely bad movie that doesn't at least try to be interesting. Finding Dory's faults are mostly found in the need to expand upon the first film instead of letting the story occur organically. Its subtext about special needs is thankfully fresh and welcomed. It's just a shame that it happens to suffer from a need to go bigger and thus more illogical, no matter how entertaining the idea is. In that regards, it is a deception of the first film and it takes a big blow towards a film with only well wishes.

Finding Dory may see Pixar entering yet another sequel to their canon of classics, but at least it isn't a total waste. By expanding on Dory's character, they have managed to make her one of the most compellingly flawed protagonists of a Pixar film yet. Her struggles feel earned, often tragic. The faux-mystery element also helps to flesh out her character and make the beats in which she reminisces on her past feel more satisfying. Is it a perfect movie? Far from it. While it does unfortunately qualify as second tier Pixar due to its madcap silliness in logic, it isn't a total waste of talented creators. It just needed a few more drafts and a few characters omitted to become what it truly could've been. For now, it's good - which is more than one could expect from a character like Dory.

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