Dreary "Finding Dory" Is Bottom-Rung Pixar

Not only did 2003’s “Finding Nemo” not require a sequel, its legacy required that no sequel ever taint it. “Nemo” was the perfect one-off, a delightful documentation of an animation studio doing epoch-making work. But Disney•Pixar’s bottom line rules over all, leaving “Finding Dory” to swim into theaters thirteen years later so the studio can siphon a cool billion dollars from moviegoers’ pockets. It’s a bad trade-off. The follow-up necessarily recycles a decade-old animation style (one that was conveniently much cheaper than starting from scratch) and tells virtually the same story that “Toy Story” told brilliantly two decades ago.

The screenplay (by director Andrew Stanton and Victoria Strouse) follows amnesiac blue tango Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) in her trans-oceanic quest to find her long-lost parents, Jenny (Diane Keaton) and Charlie (Eugene Levy). Clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolance) join her, with several other “Nemo” favorites popping up in token appearances. It’s all intermittently cute and nothing more.

Putting a film on the back of a character with short-term memory loss can be enthralling – look no further than Chris Nolan’s “Memento” – but here it’s a big bummer. Dory’s ditziness has been turned into a full on crisis, at once depressing and monotonous. Kids will be sad, adults will be sad; everyone will be sad. But fret not, moviegoers: it turns out Dory can remember all kinds of things when the story requires her to, her journey to a West Coast marine biology institute (her home) ultimately hinging on moments of near-photogenic recall. (In short, Stanton and co-director Angus MacLane oscillate between gloom and predictability.)

Another troubling development: the new characters are far more compelling than the familiars. Just why exactly is octopus Hank (Ed O’Neill) so hell-bent on getting to Cleveland, Ohio? And what’s the backstory on sea lions Fluke (Idris Elba), Rudder (Dominic West) and their would-be roommate Gerald? These are queries the movie never answers. It should have. They’re all intriguing personalities that beg for more development, routinely stealing the movie away from Dory and Marlin. (The movie’s funniest scene comes after its closing credits. Gerald is involved.)

Stanton and company have been open about the film’s tough scripting process, but that doesn’t change that it feels like an early draft. The marine sanctuary was clearly a SeaWorld-esque theme park in earlier iterations of the screenplay, badly muddling the picture’s allusions to conservation. The change makes a sad story a little less sad but all the more confusing, relying on the voice of park hostess Sigourney Weaver to assure us over and over again that these animals are in good hands. Even when the institute’s operations feel as shady as one would expect from a SeaWorld-type park.

The movie’s flashback sequences are its biggest symbol of general unimagination. Baby Dory’s bug eyes are desperate for distracted “awwws” to conceal the stench of narrative familiarity; her heart-tugging voice undeniably adorable but transparently so. And adult Dory’s predicament isn’t an interesting one. When Buzz Lightyear set off to discover his roots, there was a fascinating air of impending existential crisis. He couldn’t know what awaited him in a world full of Buzz Lightyears. Here? Dory simply can’t remember her past life, and the outcome drips with inevitability. Either she’ll find her parents, or she won’t.

The film shouldn’t be blamed for hewing so close to its predecessor’s animation style, which remains splendid by 2003 standards. But it only adds to the feeling of redundancy, as if the film has been in the can since 2007. Similarly, the old Pixar problem of needing human characters but not having much idea what to do with them is back with a vengeance. (That is, until it dispatches of them entirely in act III to rely on some sweaty story machinations that are a bridge too far beyond disbelief).

While undoubtedly on its way to towering box office returns, the only other thing “Finding Dory” accomplishes is highlighting just how far Pixar Animation Studios has fallen. The outfit’s wildly disappointing group of non-“Toy Story” sequels (“Cars 2,” “Monsters University”) has a new member, a group now threatening to outnumber its original stories. Strap in, it’s about to get worse. “Cars 3” is on its way.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: June 17, 2016
Studio: Disney•Pixar
Director: Andrew Stanton, Angus MacLane
Screenwriter: Andrew Stanton, Victoria Strouse
Starring: Ellen DeGeneres, Ed O’Neill, Ty Burrell, Kaitlin Olson, Albert Brooks, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Hayden Rolence
MPAA Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements)