Saturday, June 25, 2016

Finding Dory (***)

Directed by Andrew Stanton


Pixar's masterful run through the Aughts began with Andrew Stanton's Finding Nemo, which managed to capture the pitch-perfect blend of wit and heart of the first two Toy Story films but put it on a much bigger scale. Nemo was a colossal hit, and sparked one of the greatest runs any studio had ever had, capped by 2008's WALL-E, which was also directed by Stanton, and which also may be the studio's true masterpiece. Stanton's venture into live action filmmaking was 2012's John Carter, a film that is so synonymous with monolithic failure that all anyone pretty much knows about it is the title and the fact that they haven't seen it. So now Stanton returns to Nemo, or more accurately, to Finding Dory, a not-quite-sequel-or-spin-off that reunites all of the principle characters and gives Pixar-loving patrons a new heart-wrenching tale that will keep the kids happy. Pixar's stronghold on substantial animated features has dwindled over the last few years; Dreamworks, Sony and their parent company Walt Disney, have for all intents and purposes caught up in terms of quality animation and filmmaking. And yet, they never really seem to capture that Pixar feeling, and by that I mean that we get swayed by the wonderful displays of female empowerment in Frozen or the striking parallels to racism and the drug war in Zootopia, but these films lack the poignancy and the saccharine nature of Pixar. They are on one side the most manipulative of all the major Hollywood film studios, but is it possible that they're also the most existential? What are kids getting out of the threat of gluttonous consumerism in WALL-E or the death meditation at the heart of Up? They're getting the heartbreaking joy, the emotional roller coaster, the awesome, exhausting back and forth between comedy and tragedy that comes with a Pixar film. Last year's Inside Out proved they still had their fastball, and Finding Dory shows that even when retreading old material, they can still keep up with the new kids on the block.

Finding Dory is part origin story, and the film begins with Dory (Ellen Degeneris) as a young child, being coached by her parents Jenny (Diane Keaton) and Charles (Eugene Levy). With much patience, they try to help Dory cope with her short term memory loss, preaching to her patterns and rituals so that she doesn't have to worry about getting lost, or more importantly they don't have to worry. But, as we know, young Dory does get lost, and through a series of misdirections and awkward introductions, she ends up in the company of Marlon (Albert Brooks), the nebbish clown fish who must find his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence). A majority of Finding Dory takes place not long after the events of Nemo, as Dory begins to have spikes of memory of her parents who are still looking for her. Compelled by loss and a need to figure out the truth, Dory desperately pleads with Marlon to help her find the family she'd nearly forgotten she had. Still rocked by the last time they crossed the ocean, Marlon needs some push from the feisty Nemo to convince him to join the plan, but soon they're off, riding the backs of those tubular sea turtles on the way to the California coast line, where they try to find Jenny and Charles somewhere in the Marine Life Institute, a large-scale, tourist-heavy aquarium where Dory was born. Just outside the MLI, the three fish must employ the help of numerous odd ball characters, including a short-sighted whale shark named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a self-conscious beluga whale named Bailey (Ty Burell) who's lost his ability with echolocation, a couple of easygoing sea lions named Fluke (Idris Elba) and Rudder (Dominic West), and most importantly, a crotchety Octopus - though he's lost one of his tentacles, so now he's just a septapus - named Hank (Ed O'Neill), desperate to get out of MLI and live a safe, secluded life in Cleveland, the MLI's mellower branch.

Dory's screenplay (by Stanton and Victoria Strouse) is chaotic, and in its third act it spills over into preposterousness. Like, Independence Day-level preposterous. I don't know of another Pixar film that ever stooped to such base-level spectacle, but these moments are partially saved by the film's clever humor, consistent with its predecessor. Also like Nemo, Finding Dory is always rooted in a deep-seated terror; the first film was the terror of a father who thinks he's lost his son, and now it's a daughter who not only feels she's lost her parents, but that it's her fault. The way the script incrementally puts together the origin of Dory's disappearance is like something out of Memento, and the themes of memory and how they play a part in our own personal pain is dealt with in just as sobering way as Christopher Nolan's 2000 thriller. Dory feels a bit more severe than even Up or The Incredibles, in its dealing with adult themes - throughout everything that happens, there is a very serious concept of abandonment and loneliness. Pixar has always placed bets that there will be enough cute anthropomorphisms to keep the kids laughing and the parents distracted, but can one deny that both Nemo and now Dory are accounts of some extremely dire situations? This is far from Stanton or Pixar's best work. Even in terms of sequels, it doesn't come close to the impact of Toy Story 2 and 3. But there's a lot to enjoy here, mostly from the characterizations and the terrific voice acting. Degeneris and Brooks reprise the roles brilliantly, but the addition of O'Neill's Hank is a nice touch, the kind of supporting character that Pixar is so good at sliding in and out of their films. In a lot of ways, Hank's journey from frightened isolationist to adventurous hero is more topical than even Stanton could have realized. This is a fine film, and one that made me laugh pretty hard on a number of occasions despite the bleakness of its central themes. Is this the stepping stone Stanton needs to return to the spotlight? Well, people are actually watching Dory which is more than could be said for John Carter.

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