by Michelle Webber
I’ve been waiting for this movie with fangirlish intensity since it was announced in 2013. Finding Nemo came out in 2003 (I was ten years old) and was one of the first animated movies that everyone in my family loved. It was also the third of the “newer” films discussed in that infamous 1995 Pixar lunch meeting, and in a lot of ways was a proving ground in modern animation, which, until this point, had struggled to believably render underwater landscapes. Finding Dory comes thirteen years after Finding Nemo, giving me high hopes that the studio had given the story the time it deserved, but I still approached it with admittedly low expectations: Disney has a hot and cold record with sequels, as anybody that witnessed Brother Bear II could attest. But I could not wait to share this new adventure with my niece (five) and nephew (one and a half), both of whom really wanted to see it too. I’m happy to report that none of us was disappointed.
Finding Dory opens with a flashback to Dory’s childhood. Her parents, Jenny and Charlie, teach her how to tell people about her short-term memory loss and give us our first glimpse into where Dory came from. We then flash forward to what life looks like today for Marlin, Nemo, and Dory at the reef, picking up almost exactly where the first film left off. After Mr. Ray’s lecture on migration, Dory has a spontaneous memory of her parents who – because of her ten second memory – she has never been able to remember before. Clinging to the name of her former home (“The Jewel of Morro Bay, California”) and the hope that instinct will bring her memory back, Dory and Nemo convince Marlin to help Dory get home and find her family. What follows is a journey no less epic than that of the first movie and just as witty and fun.
Initially, I was concerned that we were going to get the same movie all over again: Dory and friends traverse derelict parts of the ocean, encounter dangerous predators, and seek help from other marine life just like the first movie. The pacing of the film seemed a little off, too: Dory, Nemo, and Marlin get to the Marine Institute pretty quickly, leaving me wondering what the real journey here was. But then something miraculous happens: Dory, who has sought help from others her whole life, gets separated from her support system and must survive by herself. Unsurprisingly, Dory’s adjustment to this newfound autonomy is not without its missteps, but eventually she gains the confidence to make her own decisions and swim with her own two fins.
The main plot is studded with adorable flashbacks to Dory’s childhood. These flashes get more and more details as the movie progresses: the more independence Dory demonstrates, the more she’s able to remember. As her confidence increases, so does her ability to deal with and creatively solve the problems presented by her short-term memory loss. In a world where more and more kids are receiving learning and developmental disability diagnoses, this scenario has increasing significant to parents and children alike. The film addresses several critical questions caretakers encounter every day: how do you help a child without crippling their ability to do for themselves? How much of a roll should disability play in our individual identity? In one flash back, Dory remembers seeing her mother crying out of anxiety about Dory’s future, acknowledging the challenges of raising a child with complex needs. But Dory’s parents never give up on her: they’re patient, encouraging, and give her tools and strategies to deal with her limitations, rather than doing everything for her. In this way, Finding Dory refutes the efficacy of the “floating parent” (like Marlin in the first movie) and reminds both parents and children that it’s okay for kids to make mistakes. Not unlike when Dory questions Marlin’s anxieties about Nemo: “You can’t never let anything happen to him – then nothing would ever happen to him!”
One of the things I enjoyed the most about Finding Dory was its concerted effort to be educational. Dory is from the Marine Life Institute, the perfect vehicle for delivering ocean-themed factoids to the audience, like echolocation (“The World’s Most Powerful Pair of Glasses”) and that octopuses have three hearts. Dory’s childhood friend, a whale shark named Destiny (one of the shining jewels in this movie), is comically nearsighted – just like her real-life counterpart. Hank, a cranky, ocean-fearing Octopus, uses camouflage to help Dory maneuver around the facility. Even the funniest moments harken back to realistic animal behavior, which only added to my enjoyment as an adult: the territorial sea lions are hilarious and the whacky imprinting bird was one of my favorite parts.
I also appreciate that Finding Dory didn’t smack us over the head with environmentalist preaching. Where it appeared, it was subtle but effective. Dory swims through a plastic 6-pack ring and is subsequently picked up by conservationists from the Institute, kicking off the main conflict of the story and reminding us that what we do impacts the ocean. The center where Dory’s parents are from focuses on “Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Release,” a harsh contrast to the reef-mance dentist in Finding Nemo. This movie manages to capture the beauty of marine life while subtly reinforcing the importance of conservation and cooperation: animals should not be harvested from the ocean, but we should do our part to help injured creatures and take responsibility for our impact.
Finding Dory is a movie about many things, but the most important and lasting messages of this fun, witty, emotional film is the importance of working together and building each other up. This movie is full of duos: Baily the Beluga helps Destiny navigate her tank; Hank helps Dory get around the Institute; Nemo helps Marlin believe in Dory; Dory helps Hank get over his fear of the ocean. Whether it’s a conventional family like Dory and her parents, an extended family like the blue tangs in her home tank, or the unconventional family made up of people you love, we can solve ANY problem – inside or outside of ourselves – by building each other up and staying positive. In the words of Dory’s Dad, Charlie, “There’s always another way.” Sometimes it takes love and support from the people around us to help us find it.