The last thing Andrew Stanton ever considered was a sequel to “Finding Nemo,” Pixar’s most successful original story to date. But in the midst of making the “John Carter of Mars” misfire in 2010, he couldn’t get Dory off his mind. Now, 13 years later, he’s solved the mystery of her short-term memory loss while crafting yet another Pixar mid-life crisis movie about self-reflection that’s very personal for him.
“I thought it was a closed circuit —it was everything I had wanted to say,” admitted Stanton in Monterey, just a block away from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which inspired the main location in “Finding Dory.” “And the brain works in mysterious ways. I couldn’t stop thinking about Dory and how she didn’t have the ability to find her way home if she ever got lost again. And she found this wonderful family. And I always knew she was a tragic figure in my mind when I created her. And I couldn’t drop it.”
So Stanton huddled with lead animator Angus MacLane (who eventually became co-director of “Finding Dory”) and Bob Peterson (the “Nemo” scribe who voices Mr. Ray). And by 2011 he fleshed out his idea: “It was like worrying about a kid making it and I needed that resolved. Nobody plans to make a sequel 13 years later. It’s a product of character love.”
“Finding Dory” picks up six months after ‘Nemo’: Dory’s happy with her new family, but after a childhood memory is triggered, she’s obsessed with finding her parents (voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) and ends up at the California Marine Biology Institute— filled with glass and water and very confining —where Dory was born and raised. There she bonds with a septopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill), who’s missing a tentacle, a near-sighted whale shark named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a beluga named Bailey (Ty Burrell) and a pair of sea lions, Rudder (Dominic West) and Fluke (Idris Elba).
Dory opens nearly as intensely as “Nemo,” and contains a similar narrative structure, but this time the journey is from an adult perspective. And, of course, 13 years later, even though the underwater environment remains familiar, both the characters and settings are much more sophisticated, in keeping with Pixar’s industry-leading tech advances (especially in lighting and rendering). The limitations are different, but the appetite grows.
One crucial change: Pixar starts from a place that is more grounded in reality and thus the animators can choose what to highlight, push back and de-emphasize. Unlike “Nemo,” there’s no cheating and they can minimize distortions on the characters.
But for Stanton, the biggest challenge was wrapping his head around Dory, who went from endearing sidekick to conflicted protagonist. “She’s driven by an internal fear of being alone and she deserves to not be driven by fear anymore and to embrace that,” he said. “And to know that that’s her superpower, not her weakness. But it took about two years to realize that self-reflection is necessary to track growth in a main character. To be able to go, ‘I felt that long ago and now I feel differently and to be able to state that.’ She can’t. She’s always had an emotional memory in our mind. It was sort of this weird rule for ourselves to track her in the first movie.”
But self-awareness doesn’t come easily for a character with short-term memory loss, and that’s where Hank comes in. He’s able to ground her even though he has lost his sense of humor during his confinement. That’s where the Pixar buddy comedy dynamic kicks in.
Ironically, Stanton always had a tragic backstory for Dory, only he kept it to himself until finally blurting it out during a “Finding Dory” story meeting. For years, she wandered alone in the ocean before meeting Marlin (Albert Brooks).
“Once you dramatize it, it brought everyone up to speed,” Stanton recalled. “Everyone goes, ‘She’s made me laugh, she’s made me smile, she’s such a fun character, I like her.’ But unconsciously everyone knows she’s a tragic character. How else can you show that first movie, never say anything about it, yet right at the end of the movie, she starts getting upset that [Marlin’s] leaving her? And she breaks down and nobody questions it.
“How can you have short-term memory loss and not have some trauma? The resonance of ‘Finding Nemo’ after 10 years is so great that we can’t address this simply: We have to really indulge. And it ended up being a really nice reminder, I think, of how really dark the first movie is. It’s a dramatic movie with a lot of funny things in it.”
And one Dory’s great characteristics is that she’s surrounded by people with physical and emotional problems, but she accepts them unconditionally and apologizes for her short-term memory loss. She’s a born caretaker, according to Stanton.
“Nemo” grew out of Stanton being a new dad and realizing that he was being overly protective of his son and had to learn to let go of him. And “Dory” grew out of his fear of being alone. “I think any well-intended movie that has consistent authorship ends up becoming a psychological couch moment for them. They end up realizing that they were trying to figure out something about themselves that they didn’t realize. I remember Mike Nichols saying in a recent documentary that all of his movies became therapy for him. And sure enough, this one is: ‘My kids are gone and who am I?'”
But it’s not about curing Dory. Rather, it’s about helping her embrace all of her limitations and be comfortable in her own skin. “I thought I knew her but I learned subtle shifts and changes about Dory and making her the focal point at all times in the scene. One of the things that I underestimated abut her was how street savvy she was. She had New York instincts. She had fight, not flight in her. But she could lose confidence very quickly depending on the condition.”
As for DeGeneres, Stanton said that he took a chance on the actress for “Nemo” (the role was conceived for her). But she owns Dory in ways he never anticipated “We did our first session with Ellen and there’s this X factor with her: charm, appeal, sophistication and a base of high intelligence that even I fell victim to underestimating until I heard these lines.
“Without Ellen there is no Dory and it’s the most symbiotic role I’ve ever written.”