Forgetful Dory’s adventure

Per Pixar tradition, a short film serves as a cinematic appetizer to the feature. Piper, the tale of a young sandpiper learning the hard lessons of foraging for food at the ocean’s edge, is an absolute delight, from the astonishing photorealism of its lighting to the emotionally rich and fairly literal interpretation of the “give a man a fish/teach a man to fish” aphorism. It’s funny, sweet, imaginative and the most memorable part of seeing Finding Dory.

These shorts show that Pixar can create original work that’s technically and emotionally engaging and hilarious. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Finding Dory. But Pixar is capable of so much more.

103 min. | PG

The film opens with a prologue taking us back to the childhood of the blue tang Dory, showing how the forgetful fish was separated from her parents, leading up to the fateful day when Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) met the clownfish father Marlin (Albert Brooks) in Finding Nemo. One year later, Dory has a flash of memory with a clue to her parents’ possible whereabouts. Setting out across the ocean with Marlin and Nemo, Dory eventually reaches a California aquarium that may reunite her with her family.

It’s an adventure. The set pieces are orchestrated with great energy and sharp comic timing, from a dangerous chase involving a giant squid to a climactic plan to stop a truck as it takes our heroes from the aquarium. The cinematic storytelling makes it engaging, with absolute professionalism.

What’s missing is a sense of discovery. Scenes like the squid chase feel familiar, playing like Nemo’s shark and anglerfish chase sequences. The opportunity to deepen the relationships between the characters we already know is missing. Dory is separated from Marlin and Nemo for the majority of the film as she interacts with new characters, like an amputee “septopus” and near-sighted whale shark. The problem is that they’re not interesting enough to make up for the lack of connection between the characters we know and care about.

DeGeneres still inhabits Dory with soul and commitment. Her voice performance in the original was magnificent, and she’s nearly as good here, wrestling with the doubt and negative self-talk that people disabilities deal with. The real power of these movies is their ability to normalize physical or psychological limitations, never offering magical cures but allowing struggling characters to come to terms with what they can accomplish. As a lesson for young viewers, that shouldn’t be underestimated.

We also shouldn’t underestimate what Pixar can do when at its best. As solidly satisfying as Finding Dory is, it ends more or less where it begins, offering a payoff that seems like a foregone conclusion. You could do a lot worse than another Dory story. You could also do a lot better.