It’s official: Pixar is corrupting our children. Thanks to “Finding Dory,” a new generation of impressionable kids — many of whom were too young to be properly indoctrinated by the mediocrity of “Cars 2” and “Monsters University” — will grow up thinking that sequels can be good, natural things that shouldn’t be protested against on principle (it’s “Adam and Eve,” not “Adam and Adam 2: Genisys”!). These innocent souls are too sheltered to appreciate how much of an anomaly this is in a year that’s already punished audiences with blockbuster cash-ins like “London Has Fallen” and “Alice Through the Looking Glass.” But now, thanks to the monsters behind Pixar’s latest and best sequel in years, the leaders of tomorrow across the world will come of age with the delusional belief that sequels aren’t de facto cash-ins, but rather films that are capable of retroactively adding new dimensions to beloved originals.
When “Finding Nemo” swam into theaters in the summer of 2003, the epic story of a clownfish searching for his developmentally-challenged clownfish son solidified Pixar’s reputation as the world’s most reliable purveyors of computer-generated animation. Thirteen years later, the waters are a lot murkier than they used to be, as the house that “Toy Story” built is no longer the infallible powerhouse that it once was (ironically, they have a sudden rash of sequels to blame for that).
“Finding Dory,” which inverts the story of the original by following a fish as she tries to relocate her parents, isn’t enough to undo the damage caused by years of second-tier efforts — nor is it enough to change the fact that Pixar sequels remain inherently frustrating because audiences think of the studio as one of the few capable of creating rich new film worlds. But “Finding Dory” doesn’t feel lazy, cynical, or like a rehash. On the contrary, it does what a sequel should — it’s a compelling argument for why we make them in the first place.
Once again voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, cinema’s favorite blue tang hasn’t changed all that much since we last saw her (meaningful growth doesn’t come easy to a character defined by her chronic short-term memory loss). It’s been six months since the events of the first film, and Dory is still living with Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence, replacing Alexander Gould). While the two clownfish make for an excellent surrogate family, Dory can’t help but feel a hole in her heart where her parents used to be. That she had parents is one of the only things Dory can remember — it’s learning anything about them that proves difficult.
Fortunately, we know that Dory has reason to remain optimistic. Series mastermind Andrew Stanton, returning to Pixar after an ill-fated sojourn into live-action (“John Carter”), introduces Dory’s parents via flashback. The film begins opens with Charlie (Eugene Levy) and Jenny (Diane Keaton) doing their best to raise their special-needs swimmer, whose brain damage apparently happened before she even hatched (baby Dory is essentially two giant eyeballs separated by a swatch of blue; she’s sickeningly cute). Despite Charlie and Jenny’s loving efforts, Dory gets caught in a current and swept out to sea — by the time she reaches open ocean, she’s already forgotten how to get back home.
From there, we’re treated to a vaguely “Up”-like montage in which Dory floats from stranger to stranger, maturing into a blithely oblivious survivor. Whereas Marlin was petrified of the sea and everything in it, Dory can’t even remember what she’s supposed to be afraid of. Conveniently, however, she’s able to recall just enough information to incite a great adventure (something about Morro Bay, California), and so — with some help from Nemo, Marlin, and an impressive roster of wonderful new characters — Dory sets out to go find… herself.
Pixar films tend to fly out out of the gate, but “Finding Dory” doesn’t achieve full speed until its latter half. The inauspicious first act, while adorable to the extreme, nevertheless raises a number of concerns about Dory’s ability to graduate from supporting character to protagonist — it’s nice that Dory embraces her extreme short-term memory loss as a part of who she is, but it quickly wears thin when pushed to the fore.
It’s a good thing that Stanton, who has never shied away from jarring shifts in tone or location, has a solid handle on what he’s doing. Things pick up considerably when Dory reaches the California coast and swims her way into the Marine Life Institute (where she’s greeted by a familiar celebrity whose voice earns a solid laugh every time she speaks, and whose most famous film becomes the inspiration for a killer visual gag in the third act). Originally conceived as an aquatic amusement park before “Blackfish” convinced Pixar to go in another direction, the Marine Life Institute is a rehabilitation center for all manner of undersea creatures, and every species that Dory meets is its own kind of comic gold.
The first animal our heroine encounters is a moody octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill), whose dry wit and general sliminess position him as the bad guy. Fortunately, “Finding Dory” keeps with Pixar’s recent trend of eschewing villains altogether, and Hank is revealed to be a more complicated character than he first appears. Other standout side players include a whale shark named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a deeply deranged loon named Becky (Torbin Xan Bullock), and — best of all — two hilarious sea lions (Idris Elba and Dominic West) who refuse to forfeit any real estate on the rock where they nap.
At times, Dory’s relentless travels around the Marine Life Institute become so frantic that the movie threatens to lose its moorings, but Stanton sticks the landing for a brilliant climactic chase in which all of Dory’s new friends come together for one perfect moment. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that “Finding Dory” is moving so fast because it doesn’t want viewers to notice how familiar the scenery looks — even in its best moments, the film lacks the knockout creativity upon which Pixar has built its brand.
But what the studio’s latest lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in feeling. As with most American animation, which is traditionally rooted in fairy tales, many of Pixar’s films are constrained by an instructively moral logic — these may be movies that appeal to adults, but they’re packaged for kids who are looking for someone to help make sense of their world. “Inside Out” is a high-concept home run, but it’s a movie that comes dangerously close to offering a “right” way to read it.
In many ways, “Finding Dory” is no different. But, under the surface, an abstract and unspoken truth begins to take shape in a more palpable way than it did in the first film. You sense it in the ominous wide shots of a tiny fish engulfed by an infinity of water, and sense it in the tear-jerking moments during which she’s realizes that she’s not alone.
This is a movie about being lost in a world that’s bigger than you can fathom, but — more importantly — it’s a movie that invites people to share in what that feels like. The ocean is a vast and terrifying place, indifferent to the silly creatures who swim through it. But there are things out there in the deep that love you, things that can make the ocean feel a whole lot smaller, things that can make it feel like home. So long as you don’t forget that, you’ll probably be okay.
“Finding Dory” opens in theaters on Friday, June 17.