'Finding Dory': Film Review

It was funnier in the dentist's fish tank.

In the eagerly awaited sequel to the 2003 Pixar hit, forgetful Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) teams up with Nemo and Marlin to find her parents.

Its heroine may suffer from short-term memory loss, but viewers with any memory at all will realize that Finding Dory falls rather short of its wondrous progenitor. Feeling driven more by commercial exigencies than by vital creative impulses, this 13-years-after follow-up to Pixar's fifth feature serves up enough shards of humor and visual distractions to keep small-fry happy. But its thematic preoccupation with “family” is so narrow, and its sense of narrative invention is so limited compared to Finding Nemo, that impatience surpasses enjoyment well before the predictable climax. Still, leviathan-sized box office is assured, given the multiple brand names  — Disney, Pixar and Nemo/Dory — and the fact that Nemo, at $936 million, stands as the second-highest worldwide grosser of all Pixar features, second only to Toy Story 3.

Repeated viewings of Finding Nemo, released in 2003, have always rewarded due both to the film's astonishing beauty and even more to the madly imaginative plotting, which introduced innumerable knotty challenges that were always met in delightfully clever ways. The yuppie-era obsession with helicopter parenting may have been laid on a bit thick, but this ultimately gave way to more diverting concerns, especially in the escape-and-rescue strategies of the manic third act.

Here, however, the optical and dramatic possibilities available in an ocean full of sea life are shortchanged by the story's far-too-quick move to the physically and visually more limited environs of the Marine Life Institute in California, an aquatic rehab center (amusingly presided over vocally by Sigourney Weaver) which in less politically correct times would no doubt have been a Sea World-type entertainment park. The best new character, a color-and-shape-changing octopus named Hank (deftly voiced by Ed O'Neill), runs rampant here in frequently funny ways, but the idea that little Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) will find her long-lost parents in this distant spot seems impossibly far-fetched both before and after it occurs.

The story, devised by the original's writer-director Andrew Stanton, who then co-wrote the script with Victoria Strouse, picks up a year after the conclusion of Finding Nemo. Orange clownfish Nemo (newcomer Hayden Rolence) and dad Marlin (returning Albert Brooks) live in contented togetherness, while blue tang Dory (cleverly resident in a brain coral) can't talk about much other than her memory loss ... due to her memory loss.

As the comic possibilities of this disability are quite limited and/or remain politely unexploited, chatterbox Dory gets it in her head that her parents are in the above-mentioned facility in Morro Bay and convinces her pals, who can't claim they have anything better to do, to accompany her from Australian waters on the epic voyage across the Pacific. Despite the multitudinous opportunities offered by such a trip for high adventure and surprising underwater encounters, the grand second act potential is largely squandered in the film's rush to get to the institute, where the action remains cloistered for the duration.

The MLI's fish-friendly mission is “Rescue, Rehabilitation, Release,” a progressive policy which also provides a springboard for fun, in that one resident, the obstreperous octopus Hank, wants nothing more than to remain in captivity rather than being returned to the wild. For this he needs a special tag marking him for transfer to a Cleveland aquarium, which Dory has and would gladly give him. Hank's extreme physical antics, which involve much shape- and color-shifting along with mordant comments keenly delivered by O'Neill, provide most of the film's laughs.

More sporadic comedy comes from some of the other inhabitants, which include an intensely near-sighted shark, a navigationally challenged beluga whale and a couple of lay-about sea lions, as well as from the returning mellow turtle Crush, accompanied by offspring Squirt.

Certainly there's enough goofy, boisterous comedy produced by all these energetic characters to keep kids amused. But central to the film's shortcomings is the fact that Dory's mental handicap makes her, at prolonged exposure, a one-note character. Her opening line is, “Hi, I'm Dory. I suffer from short-term memory loss,” and it's impossible to count, at one viewing, how many times she repeats that, or something very close to it, over the course of 90 minutes and change. In your spare time, you're left to assess the discrepancy between the inevitability (in a kids' film) of Dory finding her parents and the outrageous rational odds against a fish finding her fish parents halfway across the globe. In Finding Nemo, the long-shot chance of the little guy being reunited with his dad didn't seem ridiculous because Stanton juggled his ever-more extreme narrative dilemmas with brilliant skill. Plus, that film actually admitted the existence of tragedy at the beginning, something the new one never does.

Eventually, instead of making Dory's mom and dad (voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) predictably gushing and supportive, some fun might have been had if, upon meeting their long-lost daughter, they turned out to be the parents of thousands of other kids, a few others of whom they might have lost track of as well. Anything for a little salt and pepper along with the plain fish.

In other words, while rambunctious and passably humorous, this offspring isn't nearly as imaginative and nimble-minded as the forerunner that spawned it. A post-end credits epilogue is amusing enough to be worth sticking around for, and a six-minute Pixar short, Piper, in which a beach-dwelling little bird is weaned by its parents and forced to find food for itself, is charming and animated with an exceptional degree of photo-realism.

Distribution: Disney
Production: Pixar Animation Studios
Voices: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O'Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Hayden Rolence, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Sloane Murray, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Bob Peterson, Kate McKinnon, Bill Hader, Sigourney Weaver
Director: Andrew Stanton
Co-director: Angus MacLane
Screenwriters: Andrew Stanton, Victoria Strouse; original story by Andrew Stanton
Producer: Lindsey Collins
Executive producer: John Lasseter
Directors of photography: Jeremy Lasky (camera), Ian Megibben (lighting)
Production designer: Steve Pilcher
Editor: Axel Geddes
Music: Thomas Newman
Casting: Kevin Reher, Natalie Lyon

Rated PG, 97 minutes