Say what you will about the monopolistic mouse that has all but cornered the market on youth-oriented entertainment, Disney is a studio that has nailed its formulas. From its staggering success with the Marvel cinematic universe and the promising revival of Star Wars to the box-office behemoth that is Pixar, the company has turned crafting highly polished and predominantly inoffensive blockbusters into an art form in and of itself. Having shattered numerous opening weekend records for an animated feature and currently receiving generally positive reviews, Finding Dory is in no danger of breaking Disney-Pixar’s financial and critical winning streak.
Returning director Andrew Stanton and co-director Angus MacLane have delivered a visual triumph. After having recently endured such egregious examples of CG-animation-gone-awry as Warcraft and the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles installment, if Dory’s sensuous seascapes don’t entirely restore my faith in the aesthetic potentials of films created inside an electronic box, they do come close. The script, penned by Stanton and Victoria Strouse, is paced with disciplined precision, although its rigid three-act structure can seem confining at times. But, as with most Pixar films, solid storytelling and visual acumen function in support of vibrant characterization, and it’s in character development that Finding Dory finds its footing.
Unlike some lesser animated fare (looking at you, Chipmunks), Dory’s A-list cast of voice actors contribute a great deal to the proceedings and more than justify the expense of their inclusion. Ellen DeGeneres reprises her somewhat treacly performance as Dory with little modification but somehow manages to imbue the character’s struggle with a surprising degree of pathos by the third act. Albert Brooks returns as Marlin, hitting many of the same notes he did 13 years ago as Finding Nemo’s protagonist, this time leading an effective, if not overly compelling, B-story. While DeGeneres and Brooks both perform ably, Ed O’Neill all but steals the show as misanthropic (misichthyic?) octopus — well, septopus — Hank, Dory’s mentor and guide. Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton imbue Dory’s doting parents with charm and warmth, competently driving the story even though they’re relegated to the first and third acts out of narrative necessity. Kaitlin Olson finds the fun in her portrayal of a near-sighted whale shark, as do Dominic West and Idris Elba in the most unlikely The Wire reunion humanly conceivable. Even tertiary characters are well-rounded and granted plausible motivations, creating a world that feels much larger than the confines of its central story arc.
All that said, the film is not without its issues. In 2003’s Finding Nemo, Dory’s short-term memory loss is played as a running gag that provides a comedic counterpoint to the helicopter-parent anxiety of Marlin. This time around, it’s played as the more serious disability that such a condition would logically constitute, meaning that some of the previous film’s humor could be retrospectively viewed as somewhat mean-spirited or at least ill-considered. Add to that the fact that Dory’s forgetfulness and effusive optimism can occasionally be every bit as annoying to adult audiences as they are to her ancillary characters, and the prospects of following her story for two hours initially seem daunting. But the script addresses these issues deftly, and the cast delivers humanizing (for lack of a more appropriately aquatic term) performances that turn what could have been a rote exercise in perfunctory sequel-production into a poignant exploration of parenting children with disabilities and growing beyond personal limitations.
While it is certainly not the best Pixar film ever, or even of the last two years, Finding Dory is a worthy successor to the studio’s prior successes in sculpting substantially family-friendly fare. Aside from a few genuinely unsettling sequences that might prove too scary for the youngest moviegoers — including a nightmare-fuel aquarium touch-pool scene involving some very handsy toddlers — Dory is the kid-compatible, parent-placating Pixar picture that this summer has been sorely lacking. Rated PG for mild thematic elements.
Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemark, Co-ed of Brevard, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande.