There’s a big undersea world out there in “Finding Dory,” one that’s endlessly diverse and consistently beautiful. Not only in its dazzling photorealist images, but in the story’s creative depth.
In their 17th feature, the perfectionists of Pixar once again give us a visually magnificent picture that’s complex without being complicated, poignant without being mawkish, modest but on a wide, rich scale. What other studio builds ambitious, uplifting gems that also pack a gut punch? Pixar balances the dark and the light so deftly that it’s hard to distinguish between the two.
The film, an animated coming of age tale with a very strong backbone, is the sort of triumph that fillets its competitors with a fish knife. The leading lady is Dory, an adorable, sometimes bumbling blue tang suffering from short-term memory loss (voiced by a perfectly cast Ellen DeGeneres). Introduced as a comic sidekick in 2003’s “Finding Nemo,” she spent her film debut helping a needy clownfish (with the deadpan delivery of Albert Brooks) reconnect with his lost son.
In this sequel she tries to reunite with her own parents (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) who went missing years earlier, remembering them in flashbacks but unable to recall where they might be. The quest carries her to a California marine life institute where she’s aided by a gruff octopus (Ed O’Neil), a whale shark (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s” Kaitlin Olson) and a beluga whale (Ty Burrell), all of them as imperfect as their little blue friend.
The only truly flawless character here is Sigourney Weaver, playing Sigourney Weaver. You’ll need to see the film to figure out that particular angle, I won’t spoil it here.
Dory’s return is also a comeback of sorts for the visionary Andrew Stanton, co-writing and directing as he did the original. When Stanton stepped away from making Pixar hits to helm Disney’s science fiction fantasy “John Carter,” some prophets of doom worried that Pixar’s golden years were ending. With that bigger (but not better) live action flop imploded behind him, Stanton returns to the kind of adventures and characters he was meant to put on-screen.
The finale is a dynamic race and chase involving a truck transferring the aquarium’s fish to a faraway environment, a frantically funny sequence unlike anything in “Finding Nemo.” Here Stanton is building on his earlier hit to give us a follow-up with surprises we didn’t know we wanted. You don’t know how much fun there is in a sucker-armed octopod blindly driving a big truck against highway traffic until you see it.
This sequel is funny without sugarcoating its serious undercurrents. In classic Pixar form, the themes of family, home and identity are an ongoing subtext. As in “Up” and “Inside Out,” there are moments of touching heartbreak amid the lively humor.
In an existential moment, the harsh meaning of her limited memory hits young Dory. Anxiously, she asks her parents, “What if I forget you? Will you forget me?” Dory’s chatter is presented less like laughable absurd illogic and more like a genuine special needs disability. She’s the sober main focus, as if the film was about a lovable child with developmental delays.
The focus on a family of fish trying to reunite across an ocean reflects real life gulfs between parents and children in ways that are painful, funny, suspenseful yet never melodramatic. Here there are none of the dangerous sharks, anglerfish and jellyfish we saw in the predecessor.
“Finding Dory” doesn’t deal in villains. It shows us that navigating life is a difficult challenge on its own.
Poignant and soulful, “Finding Dory” proves once again that Pixar is the pillar of the modern animated world, producing deeply resonant and instantly memorable classics almost without fail. (Let’s ignore “Cars 2” and “The Good Dinosaur,” shall we? Nobody bats 1000). You don’t need to have children, or be a child or an animation fan to admire their work. All you need are eyes and a mind and a heart.