What does one make of a new Pixar movie in the year 2016? Perhaps the last American film studio whose name alone serves as a statement of both quality and intent, the Disney affiliate has officially been past its prime for the better part of a decade now. Following a miraculous three year run that featured the releases of Ratatouille, Wall-e, and Up, Pixar has only released three original films, their other four offerings serving as sequels to previous triumphs (this after Toy Story 2 represented the only sequel in their first 10 outings). But even their scaled-back ambition is often enough to mop the floor with rival film houses like DreamWorks and Illumination; Toy Story 3 was a Best Picture nominee, Inside Out reaches impossible heights of intellect and emotion, and I for one will go to bat for Monsters University any day of the week. They're still capable of blowing minds and raising the stock price for Kleenex, but what was once a near certitude is now more of a possibility, and we're all still in the process of adjusting expectations. My best advice: adjust them a little more before you see Finding Dory.
Despite rival studios' inability to consistently get on Pixar's level, the mouse house production team uses a deceptively simple recipe to cook up nearly all of their cinematic dishes: displace our characters, send them on a journey home, and locate their emotional centers early and often. Their best work manages distract viewers from this omnipresent framework through engagement and finesse, but its getting harder and harder to disguise. Dory not only adheres to this rigid framework, it almost neglects to hang nearly anything upon it. As the title suggests, the flick follows the journey of everyone's favorite forgetful fish as she attempts to relocate her long lost family, and where the previous film featured a bevy of obstacles and memorable asides, the new film's plot is specifically engineered to engender the least possible push back. Gone are the sharks and whales and dentists who once terrorized our protagonists; Dory is so toothless that even its primary place of unwitting aquatic confinement is an Open Ocean exhibit at the seemingly nearby Marine Life Institute. They say that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but having seen this movie, I'd argue that it's a ride along the Crush the Sea Turtle express, which quickly does away with anything representing lasting conflict along their 'arduous' journey.
In the film's opening passages, we enter Dory's (Ellen DeGeneres) dreams, and witness her flashbacks to a troubled childhood wherein her loving parents struggled with their daughter's socially crippling short term memory loss. Given that this studio has refused to shy away from miscarriages, abandonment, psychedelic hallucinations, and dystopian futures in the past, it should come as little surprise that they'd have the guts to place mental illness at the center of a story, but in doing so, they've altered the legacy of their previous classic. All those jokes about 'silly old Dory' that were played for laughs in Finding Nemo have now been cast in a completely different light, almost shaming you for finding humor in her problems in the first place. Worse yet, the script doesn't know how to handle this charged idea; they make a point of showing that the other people (see: fish) in her life are hampered by her problems, but offer no balm for the pain beyond constant nebulous statements along the lines of, 'she sure is one special fish.' Even when Dory is being brave, it's keeping all its cards as close to the chest as possible, and neutering all its boldest inclinations as it goes along.
Rest assured, it's not exactly enjoyable to come off as such a curmudgeon about the sequel to one of the most beloved family films of the last 15 years. Finding Dory will undoubtably be adored by many a viewer who wanted nothing more than to dive back into the big blue ocean with the motley crew of the original film, regardless of the occasion. Children will watch and re-watch and then watch again until their parents are required to purchase a new blu-ray after the family's first has been ground to dust. This was always going to be a home run, and yet the film's creators elected to walk on eggshells despite the impossibly long leash they had at their disposal. The annals of sequel history will have nary a harsh word to speak about Finding Dory; there are no unforgivable side-plots, no over-reaching alterations to our beloved characters, and the movie works overtime to please and comfort and coddle. Five years from now, no one will be able to recall anything negative about the flick. As a matter of fact, they won't recall anything at all.