Pixar’s latest might be the most anticipated sequel in years. Finding Nemo is a brilliant movie in every way but most of all, it’s buddy-comedy road trip with a heart concept and underwater setting begged for more. Pixar has a less than impressive record when it comes to sequels recently and indeed, Finding Dory had the excuse that it took 13 years to make because the creator, Andrew Stanton, wanted to wait until he found a story worth telling. However, instead of building on its original Finding Dory simply repeats it, a difference that forever will decide whether sequels work. If anything, Finding Dory is a good lesson in why sequels fall short.
When sidekicks emerge from the shadows to carry their own story, it is often by business rhetoric. More of what works. However stubborn Hollywood is in learning the lesson, and how often it is rewarded for precisely that stubborness (Minions made a billion dollars and I blame each and every one of you) the concept will never emotionally satisfy. Sidekicks get to be funny because they don’t have to carry the burden of driving story and emotions. They don’t have to change or think for that matter, they can just crack jokes and be memorably unique. Puss in Boots made Shrek 2 great but fell flat on its own. Absolutely nobody wants to see Buzz Lightyear away from Woody. And yet, here we are, with a sequel that centers Dory (Ellen DeGeneres, who most certainly is worthy of carrying her own movie).
Finding Nemo was great for many reasons. It put a father in the nagging, nervous and vulnerable role of protectiveness. It had an episodic nature with a slew of amazing, unique characters and marvelled in it in ways animation hadn’t done since The Jungle Book. And it had Dory. Marlin (Albert Brooks) is a pretty annoying character, though understandably so. Because he was forced together with Dory, his polar opposite, he was forced to bring out the best in himself. She was care-free, random and ingenious in her own way. They were a great pair, if not simply because they were a man and a woman on a road trip and there wasn’t a romantic connection in sight.
Finding Dory forced itself into the same premisse as its original. This time it’s Dory that’s lost, upped in stakes by her short term memory loss. The very real condition was milked for comedic relief before, yet now it took center stage as a dramatic premisse. Only, this isn’t 50 First Dates, there was never an option Dory would forget Marlin and Nemo (now voiced by Hayden Rolence) and have to be reminded. So unconsciously there really weren’t any stakes at all. Simultaneously it forced two very real problems into stories: the facts that Marlin and Nemo aren’t interesting together and Dory doesn’t work as a lead. Where Dory complemented Marlin in every way, Nemo is forced to take some moral stances to create conflict with his father. But ultimately they’re just a regular father/son duo who’s most intriguing conflict was resolved in the original movie. Indeed, as they are resorted to being the sidekicks of this movie, it becomes abundantly clear that both character’s glory days are long gone and literally all of their comedy comes from referencing this. Instead of being cute call backs at which the audience can sniffle in being all-knowing, they’re weird reminders that this movie is woefully unnecessary.
With the two leads down and out as compelling carriers of story, Finding Dory only has Dory. And it’s precisely here where the movie comes up short. The quip in the original “I have a family, at least, I think I do” is hilarious for its tragedy, but now we actually get to visit that tragedy it’s not funny at all. Though a very understandable emotional hook, it feels like a mandatory step to visit Dory’s origins and explore the drama behind her condition, not like the inconvenient nightmare that kick-started the first movie. Likewise, the movie goes above and beyond to explain everything that was awesome about Dory in the first place. From speaking whale to “just keep swimming”, all the life lessons that Dory taught Marlin (and us) are milked in an effort to earn points with the audience. No shell is left unturned when it comes to Dory, resulting in exposition not exploration of her. She doesn’t get to learn anything new, or even make a lot of mistakes. She’s even forced to repeat teaching an old grumpy guy, now a octopus named Hank (Edd O’Neill), stuff. She doesn’t get to crack new jokes or show off things we hadn’t seen before. As a lead, Dory now can’t do any of the things that made her loveable in the first place. Though the movie admirably forces other characters to embrace the divinity of Dory, she herself through out the film is, often literally, contained.
There is no building done in Finding Dory. Like Monsters University it harked back to the origins of the characters, explaining what we already knew about them. Toy Story 3, contrary, ushered in a new chapter for its characters, confronting viewers with the logic that if we really do buy into toys being alive, we have to watch them be sold and even thrown away. As brutal and emotionally rewarding as that new chapter was, taking Woody and Buzz and all of their friends into a new adventure that didn’t just feel necessary, it felt logical. Finding Dory spends its entire time in one location, the containment of a research center. No road trip, no continuation and no confrontation with where these fish with feelings might end up. In real life, the home of Marlin, Nemo and Dory is on the brink of extinction, yet the climax of Finding Dory involves sea animals driving a truck. It could’ve taken its characters to a new chapter of their lives but instead it was contend to not go anywhere signifcant.
Pixar prized themselves that it took 13 years to make a sequel because they wanted the story to be necessary, only to make a movie that absolutely wasn’t. It has many redeeming qualities, including a father and a son embracing yet again the ways of a woman who is in no way a romantic interest or motherly figure, but none can hide that without Finding Nemo this story would be very boring. Dory may have found her family and maybe even herself, but for those who looked closely at the original, she was never really lost.