I wasn't the biggest fan of Pixar's Finding Nemo in 2003. Revisiting the film ten years later with my son (a toddler at the time), I found myself on edge when Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) got separated from his son, Nemo (Alexander Gould). His titular quest resonnated more than the silly adventures that comprised it, and I was more than a little bummed when my boy decided he'd rather play with Cars (as in toys based on another Pixar hit) than finish the movie.
One of my initial problems with Finding Nemo, as I recall, was Dory, the sidekick/comedic foil to the perpetually worried and grouchy Marlin. Ellen DeGeneres was a little too perfect in her bubbly, amnesiac obnoxiousness for my taste, and I quickly came to cherish the moments when she wasn't on screen. Like many Pixar fans who react with hope but mild disappointment whenever the studio announces that its next project will be a sequel instead of an original idea,* I had doubts about Finding Dory. Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 proved that the studio can imbue anything with heart, groundbreaking animation technology, and reason to be, but later sequels like Cars 2 and Monsters University showed that not everything created by the juggernaut brand resonates with audiences.*
I really enjoyed Finding Dory in the moment, and my opinion of it grows day by day. It's the rare film that I think would be far more effective by losing twenty minutes, but it's hard to say which scenes deserve the axe. For every repetitive excursion into or out of a glass tank/pipe/aquarium, particularly in the second half, there is a magnificent comedic or dramatic punctuation that makes the not-so-thrilling bits worthwhile.
I'm getting ahead of myself. Finding Dory is part origin story and part mystery. The sequel finds Marlin and Nemo (now voiced by Hayden Rolence) taking lesser roles as Dory sets off to find the parents she'd been separated from as a child, and for whom was searching when she entered the first film. Thanks to acute "short-term remember loss", Dory must rely on out-of-the-blue flashbacks to get clues as to where her parents might be--and to hold onto those clues long enough to follow up on them.
Much of the film takes place in the bowels of a massive California aquatic center, which greatly tones down Finding Nemo's color palette in favor of a murkier, more industrial look. It's a bold decision aesthetically and an important one, thematically. Director Andrew Stanton's last Pixar film, Wall-E, was set on a futuristic Earth ruined by junk, a depressing, toxic nightmare world that humans had long since ditched for shiny spaceships and an infinite celestial playground. That same sense of intrusion rears its head early on, as Dory, Marlin, and Nemo outrun a gigantic octopus lurking in the bowels of a wrecked container ship. As the camera revealed more and more about the spooky cargo and unoccupied posts, I couldn't help but think of the man-made disasters and missing airliners that have dotted the news landscape in the last thirteen years. I wondered if we'd see bodies, or hints of lost life, somewhere in all that rusty evidence of peril.
Of course, this is still a kid-targeted film, so there aren't any Jaws-style heads floating out of crevices. There are, however, much heavier ideas at play than just making one's way back home. I won't spoil what happened to Dory's parents, except to say that it bucks a major Disney convention while also delivering an implied history that's just as sad as what we were, perhaps, expecting from the plot. Finding Dory isn't Inside Out heavy, but it walks (swims?) the fine line between goofball entertainment and more challenging lessons that may not make it a parental go-to for long car rides.
On a related note, though the movie is 3D-animated, and is offered as a premium 3D-viewing experience, I can't stress enough that families see this in 2D. The technology's key disadvantage is a slight lack of brilliance while wearing 3D glasses. In the case of Finding Dory, with its selectively muted colors and numerous scenes shot in dark locales, the audience will need as much help as it can get in following the action and getting the most for their money. I haven't yet seen the 2D version, but I know a number of parent-critics who agree that their next screening will be glasses-free.
Don't worry: the film is far from a heavy existential-crisis flick. It hums with a fun stable of new supporting characters, including a surly "septopus" (a seven-limbed octopus, voiced by Ed O'Neill), an eager-to-please beluga whale (Ty Burrell), and a trio of greedy sea lions (Idris Elba, Dominic West, and Torbin Xan Bullock). I should also mention Piper, the transcendent, silent short film that precedes the feature, which (though unrelated to Finding Dory story-wise) offers a tidyl summary of its central theme: learning about one's inner strength by working with others to overcome fear.
Which brings us back to Dory. I couldn't stand her in Finding Nemo, but she's one of my favorite characters now. I can relate to her struggle of being stuck in a past she only kind of remembers. Whether this is a result of looming middle-age or a bi-product of Pixar's relatively new penchant for digging deeper into the adult aspects of their stories--I can't say. It could just be old-fashioned movie magic. Whatever the case, Finding Dory is more than just a sequel. It's downright remember-able.
*For the record, I really enjoyed Monsters U, and can't understand the hate. I saw half of Cars 2, and can see why it turned a lot of people off.