FINDING DORY Review: A Frantic Fish Tale

When it works, it works like gangbusters.

The idea of a movie following Dory, the forgetful tang played by Ellen Degeneres in Finding Nemo, seems... well, bad. Dory was largely comic relief, and a movie about a character who cannot, from minute to minute, remember anything, could be monumentally annoying. But who am I to doubt Pixar when it comes to these matters? Who am I to doubt director Andrew Stanton, who has been there from the beginning? It turns out that Dory is a wonderful, emotionally vibrant protagonist whose journey is equally heartwarming and heartbreaking. 

Pity about the second act, though. 

Finding Dory opens with a flashback to young Dory and her parents (Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton); they're trying to teach their forgetful daughter coping mechanisms that will help her lead a fuller life. It's sad and sweet, and it's clear that Dory offers a rich metaphor for mental illness and disability. I'm sure parents of special needs children will recognize themselves in the struggles and small triumphs of Dory's mom and dad. 

After Dory loses her parents - the exact details of that are kept as a reveal for late in the film - she wanders the sea for years, sometimes forgetting why she's even lost. Then she bumps into Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Finding Nemo happens. Jump cut to a year later when a chance encounter with a school of stingrays opens a memory for Dory, and she suddenly recalls a snippet of her past life: she's from "the jewel of Morro Bay, California." With Marlin and Nemo in tow she goes searching for her past. 

But stuff happens and she gets separated from her friends and trapped inside the Marine Life Institute, an aquarium/fish hospital, the place where the secrets to her past might be found. 

There's a lot to like about Finding Dory, especially the lead character herself. Degeneres is not as funny here as she was in Nemo but she gets to go to deeper, more honest places. Some moments late in the film had me on the verge of tears, and a lot of that came from the way Degeneres can play sadly resigned to perfection. 

Dory is surrounded by new characters, many of whom are wonderful. Hank the septopus (Ed O'Neill) is a cranky delight and two seals (Idris Elba and Dominic West) are great comic relief. But other characters - including a near-sighted whale shark and a echolocationally challenged beluga - never quite register. And it's because of Dory's second act problem: it's just too frantic. 

A semi-escape picture, Finding Dory sees our hero breaking out of one area of the aquarium only to have to figure out how to break out of another only to get into a jam from which she must escape only to have to try to break back into that first place... And so on and so forth. While Dory is doing all of that, Marlin and Nemo are on their own adventure, also frantically having close calls and closer shaves. 

There's just so much hustle and bustle that the characters begin to fall away, and it all builds to a climax that is, frankly, too big, and one that breaks the world of the film. It requires such an enormous suspension of disbelief in regards to how fish would operate in the human world that it kind of broke past silly to being dumb, an unusual problem for a Pixar film to have. 

Here's the thing: the stuff that works in Dory works like gangbusters. Even though it's overstuffed with incident, Dory does manage to stop for some really harrowing emotional moments. There are scenes in this film as affecting as anything since Up. The problem is that the film doesn't quite have the consistency needed to make it a great Pixar movie. 

It's funny enough, but not as hilarious as it could be. It's touching, but only fitfully between overblown set pieces. It introduces new characters into Pixar's undersea world, but it doesn't give all of them the necessary time to shine. It's a mixed bag, a Pixar that's good enough. But don't we want more than "good enough" from them?