Minor Finding Dory spoilers follow.
Finding Nemo didn’t need a sequel. Pixar’s 2003 feature film about a lost clownfish and his paranoid dad wasn’t just a technological feat of animation, set within a vivid world full of brightly hued coral reefs and expressive creatures swimming through undulating blue waters. It was also a gorgeous tale of family, loss, and discovery that seemed to have a clear ending, one that left no narrative threads hanging in its wake.
But now, 13 years later, Finding Dory has arrived to insist that there’s more to this story.
And it’s right.
The best thing I can say about Finding Dory — written and co-directed by Finding Nemo writer Andrew Stanton — is that it spends the entirety of its 110-minute running time justifying its existence. It reminds us why we first fell in love with Nemo, his neurotic father Marlin (Albert Brooks), their forgetful friend Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), and the variety of endearingly weird creatures they encounter along their travels. It transports us to a new aquatic-adjacent setting outside the Great Barrier Reef — where much of Finding Nemo took place, as Marlin raced to find his son — to make Dory’s quest to find her parents more specifically her own.
And most importantly, Finding Dory doesn’t just throw its title character into old Finding Nemo plot points. It actually digs into Dory’s past to find out why this journey would be particularly important to her, which makes the movie resonate in a different — but no less poignant — way.
A new underwater(ish) setting infuses Finding Dory with a new kind of life
At the start, Finding Dory seems like a straight-up Finding Nemo reboot; all signs point to a cross-ocean trek as led by the blue tang fish instead of the clownfish. But the action very quickly moves from the briny depths to a marine life rehabilitation center off the northern California coast.
The marine life center doesn't inspire quite the same sense of awe that Finding Nemo did, if only because the ocean is far more mysterious to us human viewers than, say, a sprawling concrete complex lined with aquarium tanks.
But Finding Dory still finds some magic in a decidedly more human world, thanks mostly to a whole new cast of nautical creatures, not to mention a whole new cast of talented voice actors.
A nearsighted whale shark played by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Kaitlin Olson and a nervous beluga whale played Modern Family’s Ty Burrell share a hilarious, sibling-esque relationship, giving each other constant shit as they anticipate being released back into the wild someday. Quick jolts of comic relief come courtesy of former The Wire co-stars Dominic West and Idris Elba, who reunite as a pair of territorial — but extremely lazy — seals.
But it’s Ed O’Neill’s performance as ornery octopus Hank that gives Finding Dory the unlikely but sparkling pairing that Dory and Marlin provided in Finding Nemo. Though Hank’s determined to escape to a zoo where he can sit in solitary peace for the rest of his days, his tune starts to change when he gets sucked into helping Dory, whose bubbly enthusiasm slowly but surely chips away at his surliness.
Not only is it lots of fun to see Hank slither around the aquarium while toting Dory in a coffee pitcher — octopi are apparently pretty resourceful when they need to be — but O’Neill's gruffness and DeGeneres’s sunny, loopy delivery play so well off each other that watching the two characters become friends isn't just satisfying. It’s inevitable.
Dory has always been one of Pixar’s most fun characters. With Finding Dory, she becomes extraordinary.
Finding Nemo used Dory almost exclusively for comic relief, turning to her short-term memory loss to lighten the mood whenever things started to look bleak. But Finding Dory doesn’t just give Dory a starring vehicle; it also explores what it’s like to experience life in 30-second increments, and doesn’t gloss over the incredible loneliness she's grappled with ever since she was separated from her parents as a teeny tiny fish.
As writer and co-director Stanton told Vox at a June 9 press conference, Finding Nemo was essentially about the trials and tribulations Marlin encountered as he made his way across a vast expanse; Finding Dory is more of a fairy tale.
The care and attention Stanton put into Dory's character shines through in her every scene. This is especially true whenever Finding Dory flashes back to Dory’s childhood with her parents, Charlie and Jenny (Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton); sprinkled throughout the film, these fragmented memories pop into Dory's head more and more frequently as she gets closer to solving the mystery of where she last saw them.
As baby Dory struggles to remember anything more than a few sentences, constantly apologizing for her "short term remembery loss" (it’s so sad, but so extremely cute), we see the way Jenny and Charlie always took care to calm her panic with a doting explanation of Dory’s surroundings or a comforting hug. Levy and Keaton bring a warm humanity to every line they utter, making it crystal clear where Dory got her determination and optimism.
Each flashback brims with love, even as the context of present-day Dory trying desperately to remember her family imbues them with an intense undercurrent of sadness.
Because Dory didn’t just lose her family; she forgot them.
The ensuing process of her trying to remembering what it’s like to feel at home — and to accept herself for who she is, short term remembery loss and all — makes Finding Dory a powerful story of loss and, eventually, improbable triumph.
Finding Dory opens in theaters nationwide on June 17.