Finding Dory (Review): Pixar save the summer blockbuster season, yet again

There is a very common misconception that general audiences and film reviewers don’t share the same tastes; that film reviewers have elitist, snobby opinions and won’t favour the same crowd pleasing movies that general audiences will happily lap up. Yet if you look back through Pixar’s entire back catalogue, you’ll see that notion to be entirely untrue, as there isn’t a single soul on earth who hasn’t been charmed by at least one of their movies. At their best, Pixar make movies that balance an emotional richness with an inventive narrative and boundless sense of adventure- there surely isn’t a critic on earth who can’t fall for that. Isn’t a sense of adventure exactly what movies should aspire to deliver?

Finding Dory, the belated sequel to 2003’s universally beloved masterpiece Finding Nemo, delivers adventure in spades. Within seconds of the film opening, it manages to do what Pixar does effortlessly when they are at their best; you’ll feel your eyes watering up from both the sadness and the endless spades of warm, bantering humour. Like last year’s Inside Out, it is a rare film that manages to hit a heartfelt stride in its first few seconds, that it relentlessly keeps up until the very end credits.

The movie is set a year after the events of Finding Nemo. Both Nemo and Marlin (Albert Brooks) are settled back into everyday life, frequently frustrated by the whirlwind of chaos caused by their new housemate Dory’s (Ellen DeGeneres) forgetfulness. One day, a key memory is triggered and she remembers that she has a family waiting for her, somewhere else in the big ocean. Dragging Marlin and Nemo along with her, she soon ends up across the ocean at California’s sea life centre, befriending a socially awkward octopus (Ed O’Neill), reacquainting with an old whale friend (Kaitlin Olson) and obsessing over Sigourney Weaver’s voice.

Whereas it may pale in comparison to the original Nemo outing and several other films in the Pixar catalogue, compared to every other major tentpole released this blockbuster season, Finding Dory feels like a gift from the cinematic gods. It is a sequel that reminds you why you loved these characters in the first place and repeatedly gives you plenty of reasons why you want to follow them on many more adventures to come.

Adding new characters to sequels is always a worrying proposition that usually yields results closer to Poochie or Jar Jar Binks. Here, every single new character is written and voice acted to absolute perfection, perfectly complimenting the existing characters. I can imagine that it won’t just be kids desperate to own the tie-in plush toy merchandise because of how instantly winning they all are.

As for the established voice cast, Albert Brooks has a far more substantial role in the narrative than previously announced, even if he is understandably relegated to supporting character status here. The Jewish anxiety of his own comedy is perfectly channeled in the character of Marlin, with age only heightening it.

As for Dory herself, DeGeneres manages to convey a world weariness in her vocal performance; Dory may still be a ball of fun, but she is clearly worn down by the short term memory loss. DeGeneres’ performance doesn’t let it get in the way of her personality, but the devastating effects of the condition have clearly had long term consequences on the way she reads the character’s lines. It is incredibly subtle, but poignant nevertheless.

“Compared to every other major tentpole released this blockbuster season, Finding Dory feels like a gift from the cinematic gods”

Disability themes are incredibly rare in children’s cinema, so for one of the biggest animated releases of the generation to feature it as the central narrative focus is an enormous deal. Whereas the first film played her condition for laughs, here we see everything through Dory’s eyes; the frustration of not being able to make connections with people, the burden of forgetting important information constantly, meaning you can never go anywhere unsupervised. At one point, she quips that the only thing she remembers is her memory loss- combined with the mystery styled narrative, this is nothing less than Memento for kids, but with far more heart than Christopher Nolan could ever manage.

2016 is likely to go down in movie history as the year when audiences began to get bored of sequels. Various studio properties released follow-ups which under performed, from Bad Neighbours to TMNT and Alice Through the Looking Glass, leading to a growing uncertainty in the studio system- and the need to actually create some brand new, original content. Finding Dory is proof that if a sequel is going to be made, it can’t exist as a cash cow first and a movie second. Sure, Disney green lit this for the filthy lucre. But the final product feels like a labour of love, a crowd pleasing joy that really does need to be seen with the biggest crowd possible.

My sold out audience (which only had a tiny handful of children) were lapping it up, laughing frequently and sniffling dozens of times more. I doubt any other sequel or brand extension this year had quite the same effect on its audience. After all, director Andrew Stanton goes out of its way to not only remind you why you loved these characters in the first place, but to develop them even further so that you love them more- as well as completely fall for the new supporting characters too.

After directing Nemo and Wall-E, he made the bizarre move of directing the live action mega flop John Carter, a long boring slog that failed to set up any sort of franchise. Here, he’s returning to his crowd pleasing instincts and the results are so joyous, they cut through any form of critical capacity I may have.

I don’t want to spoil any gags, but the comedic highlights are clearly any scenes starring the cockney sea lions, voiced by Idris Elba and Dominic West, in a semi-The Wire reunion. Elba has pretty much pushed the boat out on voice work this year; he’s already lent his voice to Zootropolis and The Jungle Book in the last few months, so you can’t escape the feeling he recorded all his Disney work in one long, recording session. This is probably the finest of his three performances, as his line readings perfect the balancing act of observational comedy and surrealist humour effortlessly.

Dory doesn’t feel as strange as Nemo did in its best moments, but is still loveably odd; I honestly don’t think any film has ever featured a car chase sequence with an octopus behind the wheel. If you’re going to complain about that (or anything else in the movie) being unrealistic, then you really are being pretty pedantic about a film starring talking animals. One complaint shared by many is the never ending nature of the third act, where obstacles keep coming in the way of a clear resolution at a frenetic pace.

I personally loved the film tipping over into bonkers action movie territory, but for those who preferred the straightforward nature of Nemo, it is presumably the reason why they believe this sequel feels like a disappointment in comparison. I honestly saw no difference between this and the frenetic climactic set pieces in the Toy Story movies- and boy, am I happy that Pixar are taking advice from those sequels and not their detested Cars franchise.

With Finding Dory, Pixar haven’t changed their textbook narrative formula. But if the results are this downright enjoyable, why should that be a problem? It has single handedly saved the summer blockbuster season for me and even manages to do the impossible- it gives sequels a good name. After the low of The Good Dinosaur, it is great to see the studio shooting back to stratospheric heights and making it feel effortless.

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