Pixar isn’t quite as unassailable as they were a decade ago. They have a well-deserved reputation for a quality output of computer-animated entertainment, and their success can be equally attributed to their revolutionary impact on CGI as the primary mode of feature film animation and their unique ability to craft fantastical worlds while still telling stories insightful to human feeling and experiences. It doesn’t matter that their protagonists over the years have included animate toys, a robot, monsters, and yes, talking fish; Pixar’s stories connect with people on a deeply personal level. That consistency has subsided a bit in recent years, with the range of their current work’s quality exemplified perfectly between last year’s brilliant Inside Out and the disappointing display of The Good Dinosaur. This year, we have Finding Dory, a thirteen-years-later sequel that doesn’t swim to the surface of the Pixar catalog, nor does it plummet to the depths.
Set one year after the events of Finding Nemo, we reunite with Marlin (Albert Brooks), Nemo (newcomer Hayden Rolence), and, of course, the amnesiac blue tang Dory (Ellen DeGeneres, never failing to give perfect delivery no matter the tone of a scene), all living together in Marlin’s ocean home. Dory starts having flashbacks of her parents and she becomes determined to find them again before she forgets. So she travels with Marlin and Nemo, respectively reluctant and eager, to a California marine life institute to uncover her past and find her family.
Those looking for a fun-filled animated adventure with some familiar faces (and voices) aren’t likely to be disappointed in what Finding Dory has to offer. The jokes are consistently funny, the animation is wild and inventive, and the set pieces are fun and exciting. The central theme of the adventure is recognizing the strengths of different abilities and perspectives, and while it isn’t as universally relatable as Marlin’s paternal struggles in Finding Nemo, it’s nice to see the film treat Dory’s amnesia as more than a limiting device for her character. The supporting cast all have different disabilities—a seven-tentacled octopus, a near-sighted whale shark, and a sonar-deficient beluga whale—but each of them have strengths that allow them to thrive despite the expectations of others, which serves to reflect on Dory’s struggles with self-acceptance and esteem.
However, that same supporting cast is why Finding Dory doesn’t feel as impactful as its predecessor. Bailey the beluga feels like an expository plot convenience for most scenes he is in, and Destiny the whale shark is so blandly kind and adorable that her existence seems like blatant justification for more merchandising prospects. Only Hank the octopus feels like he has any semblance of emotionally engaging backstory or personality, which the film strangely hints at but never explores in any gratifying way. Were it not for the mirror journeys of Marlin and Dory, learning to accept Dory for her strengths as well as her weaknesses, this would have been a mildly entertaining experience but would have had a questionable place in Pixar’s esteemed canon.
As it stands, though, Finding Dory plants itself firmly in the unambitious center of the hierarchy. I would even go so far as to say it’s the second best sequel that Pixar has produced. (I’ll let you guess which Toy Story I’m not so big on.) It isn’t as transcendent as even the film that spawned it, but simply by virtue of being produced by the writers, directors, and animators at Pixar it has a leg up over most competition. Finding Dory may exist at a shallower end of the pool, but it’s still a very fun bit of aquatic summer cinema.
Oh, and Piper, the animated short that precedes the film, is absolutely adorable.