A Whole Other Ocean: A Full Review of ‘Finding Dory’

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Arriving thirteen years after its magnificent, underwater predecessor, Finding Dory proved to be a worthy sequel and a very good film in its own right.

Finding Dory‘s main strengths are in its development of Dory.

I remember the cries and concerns when it was announced that the Finding Nemo sequel would focus heavily on the forgetful regal blue tang. It was doomed to be like Cars 2, and that putting Dory in the limelight was essentially the same as making Mater the main character in a movie. While Cars 2 tried to have a heartfelt core, a story where Mater realizes that no one laughs with him, it was obscured by the all-over-the-place writing and rushed nature of the movie. Finding Dory on the other hand fully fleshes out Dory’s character and really does something positive for the world… Rare for any sequel or modern mainstream animated film.

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Dory’s short-term memory loss could be seen as a setback, her disability initially comes off as something that will make her struggle throughout life. Finding Nemo‘s final third has a particular sequence where Dory monologues to Marlin about how she doesn’t want to forget, one of the film’s most effective and heartbreaking moments. Living with Marlin and Nemo in the Great Barrier Reef has certainly improved her previously lonely life, but she still has a family to find, something that could in many ways complete her.

In the flashbacks, we see that Dory’s parents are fully understanding and patient, doing everything they can to not only help Dory cope with her issue, but also do so without fuss or frustration. When she apologizes for forgetting, they quickly console her and tell her not to be ashamed. Things that were fun gags in the first film now have more meaning here, such as “Just keep swimming”. Dory now has legitimately good reasons for remembering such a cheerful tune, it’s what has kept her going long before meeting Marlin. Did Andrew Stanton have any idea way back when that this little song would one day have this much impact on the character and her story?

What’s not talked about, I feel, is how the film actually combats casual ableism and observes how we interact people with various disabilities. In this film, Dory is sometimes taken for granted, or her issue drives others to frustration. Early on in the film, Dory – in the midst of remembering various episodes of her childhood – awakens a hungry squid. After the attack, which nearly kills Nemo, Marlin angrily tells her that forgetting is what she’s good at. Dory swims off saddened, and is then taken to the Marine Life Institute, kicking off the big adventure. Nemo continuously reminds Marlin of his stone-cold insult, and Marlin regrets it in many ways, in one scene he tries his damnedest to forget he even said such a thing to her.

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Finally, when Nemo and Marlin are trapped in the little display tank in the MLI’s gift shop, it is here that Marlin finally realizes his error and also realizes how brilliant Dory can be.

“What would Dory do?”

Marlin figures that Dory always does something, almost anything, to get herself out of a sticky situation. No fretting or worrying, she just does. We’ve seen that many times in Finding Nemo, and in this film she uses that to her advantage. In the touch tank sequence, she bravely pulls a frightened Hank through a “battlefield” of kids’ hands coming into the water, poking and squeezing the various fish. How? She just keeps swimming! All works out after a kid pokes Hank, causing him to ink up the whole tank and scare off all the kids. Hank then sees that Dory has her little ways about her, despite her short-term memory loss, which initially rankles the cranky septopus. Like Marlin, he even straight-up insults her (“you forgot them, that’s probably how you lost them in the first place!”) right before they land in the touch tank.

In other sequences, Dory gets the cold shoulder from strangers who don’t quite understand that she has short-term memory loss. In one particular scene nearing her reunion with her parents, she asks various fish for help. One tells her “be more specific”, she tries to form a sentence but fumbles, the fish just swims away. A lot of the fish in the Open Ocean exhibit barely give her a word in.

I myself have a disability, Asperger’s syndrome. Over the years, I’ve had my “setbacks” and my issues, I still have some to this day. I’ve certainly had it rough some times growing up, and know firsthand what the stigmas could be like. Sometimes there’s this attitude that parents will give other parents, a sort of “oh he/she must be a real burden for you” kind of attitude. With my case, being very high-functioning, it’s often hard for me today whenever something happens that makes me appear to be… Well, how should I put it? Not all there, not firing on all cylinders.

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I’ll have my moments where my brain is focusing on so many things at once, it goes a bit haywire, and then I go into a brief state where I may not be thinking straight. To someone who doesn’t know about these things, I could appear to be dim-witted or slow. I’ve gotten it thrown back at me too, many times, nowadays, years ago, during my childhood. It’s never been easy, and as a result I had gotten bullied frequently throughout middle school and high school. Mostly by people who don’t or didn’t really know me, but if they did, they would think otherwise about me being inadequate. With a more visible disability, no one would think such things.

Dory’s disability is a bit close to mine. She can function well, she speaks, she can generally get through and around places – especially in a world as big and as dangerous as the big blue. As such, ignorance got leveled towards her. They couldn’t help it, for they didn’t know about her condition. Finding Dory so wonderfully works off of all this, how we look at people with disabilities – visible or not – and how we treat them. To think that one of my favorite things covered this and challenged perceptions of disabilities… It really warms my heart. Animation tackling ableism and disabilities and learning about the values people have…

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This doesn’t just apply to Dory, either. There’s her old “pipe pal” Destiny, a near-sighted whale shark. Bailey, a beluga whale, believes he can no longer echolocate because of a concussion. At the end of the film, they find themselves using their abilities to help Dory and her friends – and how! Outside of characters with setbacks, the film also shows that someone who might be unlikely to help or succeed in a situation can actually save the day. Look no further than the more animalistic Becky, an appropriately looney loon.

At the moment she arrives on the scene, Marlin’s already hung up on how he treated Dory earlier, but then has reservations about a bird with twitching eyes helping them find Dory. In fact, their failure to get to the quarantine room is all Marlin’s fault, not Becky’s. Becky stops to pick at some spilled popcorn on the ground, Marlin tries to move the sand pail off the tree branch that Becky left it on, landing them in the gift shop. Becky then takes the empty bucket to quarantine, mission failed. By that point, Marlin “gets” it. At the end of the film, he gets Becky to help, knowing what she is capable of.

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Some particular writers have taken it upon themselves to use Becky, and another comic relief character named Gerald, to suggest that Finding Dory actually shoots its themes of inclusiveness and embracing your disabilities… In the foot. Back when the film was released, I immediately challenged that and personally shot those theories down. Some even went as far as suggesting that Becky and Gerald had “disabilities”.

Did they?

All I saw were too classically silly “cartoon” characters. Animation history is littered with them! I mean c’mon, one of Disney’s own iconic characters is silly and dim-witted, it’s in his name… Goofy! Oh, and to say nothing of characters like Dopey, Gideon, Ed, and so on. Heck, there are tons of goofy faces here outside of Becky and Gerald, and some of them aren’t “all there” either. How about that overexcited clam that Marlin and Nemo bump into at one point? Or the quirkier Tank Gang members in the first film? (“Bubbles!” anyone?) Why does dim-witted or “off” automatically mean “disability”? To me, that’s actually kind of condescending and ignorant. Are you suggesting the disabled are akin to characters like Goofy, Ed, Gerald, et al? Are you suggesting that those characters have disabilities because they don’t act normal?

Or better yet, who are these people? Who do they think they are? Why do they think they “speak” for us?

All of that frustration aside, I see Gerald as something else. Yes, he’s that goofy little bugger that keeps trying to take the nice comfy rock from sea lion duo Rudder and Fluke (which they claimed, he has no business trying to take it in the first place!), but hey! He’s unscathed, he keeps trying to take it even though he’s been yelled at several times for it! Just watch the post-credits scene, the final shot is him quietly peaking his head up from behind the two sleeping sea lions, snickering. I don’t think he’s some misunderstood outcast, he’s essentially a little troll. A dopey one, but still a troll with serious determination. I think the joke is – he wants the rock that he didn’t claim, he try, try, tries again and again to get it. There are a ton of other rocks he can rest himself on.

Yes, Finding Dory has so much on its mind and faultlessly says all of it without ever hammering it. The story has legitimate weight to it, and really has something to say. This is no ordinary sequel, and it could’ve been. It could’ve easily coasted and just slapped Marlin, Dory, Nemo and friends onto a generic adventure and called it a day. It didn’t, and then some. This is what you call a great sequel.

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Like all of Pixar’s sequels, even the not-so-beloved ones, it isn’t just a mere rehash of Finding Nemo. Not because of Dory’s story, or the fact that it’s not really about trying to “find” her, but because the adventure is radically different in both its size and structure. Roughly 15% of this film takes place in the ocean, the rest of it is all on land, in the Marine Life Institute. In the first film, we have two sections: One is two fish traveling across the ocean, the other is some fish in a tank in a tiny dentist’s office. Heck, the counter area of the quarantine room in this film just shows how the film is going to dwarf the dentist office setting!

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Dory and Hank traverse the institute to find Dory’s parents, Marlin and Nemo do the same in trying to keep up with Dory. It’s a lot busier than Nemo, a lot more “on the move”, perhaps my only good-sized issue with what is otherwise a high quality sequel. With Nemo, you had lots of moments where things slowed down and you can breathe in the atmosphere, the opulence of the ocean setting, and take a breather from the action sequences. Here, not so much. It moves, moves, moves. The tone is faster and wackier, the staging is wilder, the camera moves quite a bit too, you have all sorts of wackadoo things happening too… Like Hank and Dory driving a truck down the highway, Marlin and Nemo using several means to get around the institute, all the stuff with Hank and Dory using a baby stroller to get to Dory’s former exhibit. All of this bonkers fun is great, though it does get a bit tedious and even farfetched at times. (How the heck did the truck do a complete flip when flying off the cliff? How did the stroller cruise at breakneck speed into the touch pool room after riding backwards down a small slope?)

Thankfully, the rest of the second act starts to balance things out. To be fair, a lot happens in this story, and to get that all into an audience-friendly 90-or-so minutes is no easy task… Finding Nemo is 100 minutes long, this is 97 minutes long. Perhaps it could’ve been a few minutes longer so we could get some quieter stretches in, but it doesn’t hurt too much. The manic pacing of the middle certainly did throw some critics off, though – I can see why. Being very antsy about pace myself, I probably would’ve added some quieter moments to space out the move-move-move speed of the middle.

What I do appreciate is that Finding Dory is so different from its predecessor. The Pixar sequel business and talk is fiery enough, but there’s one thing I actually admire about the studio’s continuations: They are not carbon copies of their predecessors, even if they share story similarities. Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 have pretty much the same chassis as Toy Story, the toys have to get back to Andy’s house before something happens. But the journeys are different, as are the themes, the characters’ arcs, and the ideas. Cars 2 is nothing like the first film, a peaceful ode to Americana and small towns and the little things in life, this one’s all spies and action and saving the world from evil oil barons. Monsters University is about how Mike and Sulley met in college, it’s nothing like Monsters, Inc.

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Finding Dory, as mentioned earlier, mostly takes place on land. Dory’s looking for her family, not someone who has been kidnapped, and the thing is… We know what happened to Nemo in the first film, the whereabouts of Dory’s parents are a mystery here. We get a little bit of Finding Nemo in the Marlin and Nemo subplot, but it doesn’t ring generic, nor does it feel like the film is copy-and-pasting elements from the first film. Dory’s trying to find her parents, Marlin and Nemo are trying to keep up with her. There’s no ticking timeclock for Dory, the only character with one is Hank, for he wants to have a quarantine tag and make it to the Cleveland aquarium before the morning the truck sets off.

Not every character is back, either. The Tank Gang only appear in a fun post-credits scene, the shark trio are nowhere to be seen, Nigel doesn’t cameo. Some seagulls are seen during the third act chase. Crush and the turtles get a really short sequence, and that’s it.

Tonally, it’s different. Finding Nemo feels big, mysterious, and a bit uncertain. The ocean is big and wide, it’s a big case of “into the unknown”. At times the ocean is breathtaking, at other times it’s threatening. Marlin is thrust into a world way beyond the forbidden “drop off”, which creates a real sense of wonder. The dentist office setting is intimate by contrast, providing nice breaks to the large-scale side of the picture. Finding Dory feels more like an adventure that relies on “how will they get out of this one?” storytelling, with a rather odd feel. At times it’s really big and sprawling, but yet it feels as intimate as the dentist office sequences. The Marine Life Institute is all kinds of things: Small rooms, big out-in-the-open areas, large exhibits, pipes. It goes many different land-based places, a far cry from the ocean setting. In fact, it feels more like a Toy Story film than it does Finding Nemo, and it’s inventive like those very plaything stories.

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Finding Dory reprises some beats from the original (one of which occurs, unsurprisingly, outside of the MLI), but can stand on its own. Like the first film, it balances the comedy and drama very well. When Dory gets funny, it’s a riot. Some of the best bits involve the aforementioned Gerald and Becky, alongside the lonely clam in the tide pool, Bailey’s pretty funny, and the touch tank sequence is ripe with gags. (“Po-o-o-o-oker’s co-o-o-o-ove!”) When it gets a little moodier, it’s to the point and never schmaltzy. Dory remembering the night her mother cried about her condition is a moment that seriously hit home for me, up there in the high ranks of Pixar tearjerker scenes.

Oddly enough, the flashbacks are perhaps the most fascinating thing about this film’s story structure.

Andrew Stanton had tried so hard to use this kind of storytelling in Finding Nemo, opting to gradually reveal through flashbacks what had happened to Marlin’s wife Coral and Nemo’s then-unhatched siblings. The big reveal would come during the climax where Nemo, Marlin, and Dory work together to swim down and escape the fishing net. The biggest problem with that approach was… Well… The fate of Coral would’ve been very obvious from the get-go, and it also made Marlin unlikable. His overprotective ways would’ve been a problem for audiences at first, how were you supposed to sympathize with him? Stanton made the wise choice later on, cutting the flashbacks and showing the audience upfront what had happened in the first five minutes, making Marlin much more relatable.

With Finding Dory, he was able to use this method. Dory can’t remember exactly what happened, so the flashbacks not only keep us in the dark, but also make for some of the film’s most effective moments, all the while building her character. The shells, why she sings “just keep swimming”, all of this adds to her character development. Without the flashbacks, I don’t think this story would be as strong… Plus it gave the animators an excuse to create what is possibly one of the most adorable things in an animated film.

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Anyways, it makes the film a little less predictable. Did something happen to her parents? How did she get separated from them? There’s vague little hints like the undertow, but would we know that the “undertow” was the pipe current that pulled her out of her exhibit and into the ocean? The way some of the flashbacks are shot and staged, you would think she was from the ocean, not an aquarium. Once she gets to the Open Ocean exhibit halfway through the film, the film doesn’t stop with the mysteries. The parents aren’t there, Dory then finds out from a crab couple (listen for a familiar voice here!) that they may be in quarantine, as all the blue tangs are there – set to be shipped off to Cleveland.

In quarantine, the other blue tangs – in a tank, minutes away from being loaded into the truck – tell Dory that her parents went to quarantine to look for her years ago, but never came back. Dory assumes her parents died, leading to one of the film’s strongest sequences… She has a panic attack and we witness it from her point of view, accurately depicting what it’s like to have that kind of revelation hit you. It’s all the more painful when she ends up back in the ocean due to a series of mishaps, now without Marlin and Nemo, her home, or a family it seems. Thankfully, a few minutes later, she finds out that Jenny and Charlie set up a new home on the seabed by the Institute. Day after day, year after year, they’ve laid down shell trails, hoping one day Dory would find them and follow them.

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After a heartwarming reunion, Dory remembers that Marlin and Nemo are on the Cleveland-bound truck. The third act climax deserves a special mention because of how bonkers it is, and how much of a 180 degree turn it is from the first film’s intense fishing net finale. It’s also another instance of the story pulling the “How are they going to do that?!” trick, and cranking that up to 11. You have Hank and Dory going grand theft auto on the Cleveland-bound truck and getting it to the ocean, with satisfying results. To top it off, when they head back to the MLI, a horde of police block the bridge… So they drive it right off of a slope and straight into the water, freeing all the fish… All of it set to ‘What a Wonderful World’, one of the oddest uses of it I’ve seen in a movie.

Right from there, the movie has a brisk epilogue and ends on a suitable note… Marlin and Dory enjoying the view from the drop off, which Dory describes as unforgettable…

Finding Dory is no ordinary sequel. To take a side character and make her the focus of the movie is one thing, to really go in-depth and touch on an issue many people face is another. Pixar is often praised for risk-taking and touching on true-to-life elements, things that hit our emotions. Very much in the tradition of Walt Disney’s films. Andrew Stanton himself had wanted to channel early Disney with Finding Nemo when developing the concept in the late 1990s, miffed at The Lion King‘s idyllic savanna setting. He wanted something that was more Bambi, a world where some animals were going to eat our heroes, and that was that.

Finding Nemo remains a breathtaking odyssey, a Pixar giant for sure. Finding Dory is more than a worthy sequel, even if it may not have the rock-solid consistency and careful pacing of its predecessor. At this point, I think it’s actually a shock that Pixar was able to match all of the strengths of the first Toy Story with Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3. Very few cinematic sequels match a near-perfect predecessor, and I’m not shaking over Finding Dory not being near-perfection when it does so much right to begin with. Another winner from Pixar, and an animated adventure worth looking out for…

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