Well, this is disturbing: Pixar, which for years was the most creative, most consistent studio in Hollywood (that includes live action films and animation), has five films in various stages of production, and four of them are sequels. If you go back to 2010, Pixar has produced seven sequels, as opposed to four films based on new ideas. Three of those four new-idea films have been released. One of them (“Inside Out,” one of only a handful of reviews I’d like to rewrite after misinterpreting a key plot point) has already ascended to classic status. The other two were two of Pixar’s weakest efforts (“Brave” and “The Good Dinosaur”). The fourth one, “Coco,” is inspired by the Mexican holiday Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), which is the exact setting for Fox’s 2014 film “The Book of Life.” Ahem.
The first of the five films in production is “Finding Dory,” the follow-up to 2003’s “Finding Nemo,” far and away Pixar’s most successful film until “Toy Story 3” made over $1 billion worldwide in 2010. Thirteen years is a long time to be away, and Pixar is clearly mindful of the gap, because the story structure is part sequel, part remake. Several jokes from the first film are rehashed, with diminishing returns from all but one (the sea lions). For the most part, the film plays it maddeningly safe, and then the third act arrives, at which point all hell breaks loose in the most glorious, adorable way possible. In addition, it appears they even threw in an homage to “Inception” for the adults.
After a cute but heartbreaking sequence involving a toddler Dory and her parents, then later lost tween and adult Dory trying to find her parents, the story eventually settles a year after the events of “Nemo,” where Dory (Ellen Degeneres) has a sudden urge to, yep, find her parents Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy. With a vague memory that she was raised off the coast of California, Dory, Marlin (Albert Brooks), and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) enlist the help of an old friend (no spoilers) to take them on the roughly 7,000-mile journey. Shortly upon arrival, Dory is snagged in a plastic six-pack ring, and picked up by employees of the local marine institute, which treats marine life for release back into the ocean. Dory recalls living in one of the exhibits, and convinces a standoffish mimic octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill, in a bit of inspired casting) to help her. Meanwhile, Marlin and Nemo are concerned that without them, Dory will forget where she is and why she’s there, and embark on their own adventure to save their friend.
Three years ago, on a long car trip home, my kids watched “Finding Nemo” on a DVD player in the back seat, while we parents could only take in the audio. It is the ultimate litmus test for a comedy, and “Nemo” passed with flying colors. That movie is hilarious, a master class on comedic timing delivered by two gifted comedians. “Dory,” meanwhile, is less about the journey than it is about the destination, and as a result they swap out left-field ideas like vegetarian sharks, or the unrelenting horrors that are a wall of jellyfish and the female angler fish (not to mention dentistry), and replace them with plot-driven roadblocks. This makes sense in a ‘Rule of Sequels’ sort of way, but then again, it also makes sense that Dory would say, again, “Can I help you?” to someone she was just talking to. It’s consistent for the character, but death for the story.
But the finale, God, that finale. After getting by on the comedic and visual gift that is Hank for the first 80 minutes, the script has no more use for the “Wait, I just remembered something new!” device (thank goodness), and lets it fly, sometimes literally. Most of the film’s finest moments are in those last 20 minutes. And definitely stay through the credits.
Degeneres learns the same lesson here that Larry the Cable Guy learned with “Cars 2”: stealing a movie is much easier than leading one, though to be fair both were hamstrung by lesser material. Brooks gets a fair amount of screen time as well, though like Degeneres, he doesn’t get to flex his muscles, either. O’Neill is the standout here in every way, though Idris Elba contributes a nice pinch-hitting performance that marks, no joke, his third Disney/Pixar performance this year alone. Perhaps they have him on retainer.
As entertaining as “Finding Dory” is, it’s also extremely frustrating that the film doesn’t realize that it’s playing with house money. “Finding Nemo” is arguably the most quotable film in Pixar’s catalog, while the most quotable moments in “Dory” are all callbacks from “Nemo.” It’s sweet and fun, but it lacks the personality that made the original so endearing. That it succeeds in spite of this is frankly a miracle.(3.5 / 5)
This review originally ran June 16, 2016 on Bullz-Eye.com.