Friday, December 30, 2016

Dory Telling

I dragged my feet a bit on seeing Finding Dory. Even though Toy Story 2 and 3 turned out great, I was still skeptical of a seemingly unnecessary sequel to a fantastic Pixar film. And the comments I'd heard from people who had seen it suggested it was fine, but not exceptional. Together, it all played into some lowered expectations, which the movie was then able to exceed a bit.

Picking up one year after the events of Finding Nemo, this sequel centers on the forgetful Dory and her quest to find her parents. When she learns that she was raised in a California marine institute, Dory (with Marlin and Nemo in tow) set out on a new adventure.

It's a bit easier to talk first about what isn't so great about Finding Dory: the overall plot. The script feels a bit piecemeal, designed from the outside in. It's as though a list was made of situations not covered in the original film, and then this movie was crafted to systematically tick them off -- hence the marine institute setting, and the ideas that follow. On the one hand, it's refreshing for the movie not to completely retread the ground of the original; on the other hand, it sometimes feels quite workmanlike the way scenes attach to each other.

Also making the whole thing feel manufactured is that the entire story turns on Dory's highly selective short term memory. Every time the plot needs to advance, Dory suddenly remembers something new. Though this is always excused by some trigger words some character says, excusing is not earning. It's a very convenient device for the writers for moving things along, and Dory goes back to being her daffy self when plot momentum isn't necessary.

But while the skeleton of the film is flawed in these ways, the muscle built upon it is actually pretty strong. It's hard not to get swept up at least a little in the sentiment of searching for long lost parents, and the movie does manage to make you genuinely feel for Dory -- thanks in no small part to the sympathetic performance of Ellen DeGeneres. Also anchoring this serious side of the film are Albert Brooks (returning as Marlin) and Hayden Rolence (taking over for Nemo), plus new additions Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy as Dory's parents.

The humor really works in the movie as well, with a series of clever premises and jokes supported by still more solid casting. Idris Elba and Dominic West play a pair of territorial sea lions (echoing the seagull joke of the original). Kaitlin Olson (as whale shark Destiny) and Ty Burrell (as beluga whale Bailey) are key to many of the more kid-oriented jokes of the film. And hilarious mileage is had out of Sigourney Weaver playing herself and not being intrinsically funny. (For details, you'll have to watch it yourself.)

Stealing the show as the breakout of the film is Ed O'Neill as octopus Hank. O'Neill isn't digging deep to voice the cantankerous character, but he's perfectly cast all the same. And the animators have a Genie-from-Aladdin-like field day with the visuals, using the octopus' camouflage for joke after joke.

For me, what's difficult about rating and ranking this film is comparing it to Moana. Each felt strong to me in ways the other was weaker. Moana had a more carefully crafted story, amazing visuals, and felt like there was a message underpinning it. Finding Dory feels more slapped together in places, but was nevertheless the movie that actually pulled on my heartstrings more effectively. Today, I'd give the slight edge to Finding Dory -- but I feel like I could change my mind down the road, and I certainly wouldn't seek to change the mind of someone who felt the opposite.

Either way, I'd rate Finding Dory a B+. If you're looking for something to rise to the heights of Finding Nemo, it predictably falls short. But it's still a respectable effort from Pixar.

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