Finding Dory is Pixar’s most disappointing film to date

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Over the past few years, Pixar’s newfound love affair with sequels has created a lot of anxiety among hardcore fans. The animation giants who once proclaimed they would never make a part two unless the story demanded it are now be cranking out Cars 2, Monsters Inc. 2, Finding Nemo 2, and the list goes on and on. Has their creativity been drained? Is the golden age of Pixar over? That’s been the worry, but now that Finding Dory is out, the general consensus appears to be that we were all wrong to ever doubt Pixar.

I couldn’t disagree more. Finding Dory only affirmed many of my fears about the studio’s sequel-mania. While the movie is not bad, it covers virtually no ground that Finding Nemo didn’t already cover 13 years ago, and the whole thing feels like everyone involved is going through the motions. I hope and pray this is not the company’s future.

To be fair, Pixar has made sequels in the past, but the Toy Story movies arguably only improved with each installment. So what’s different here? Well, looking at the Toy Story series, each sequel very clearly adds another thought that the previous chapter did not explore. While the original Toy Story is very much about the relationship between Buzz and Woody, which serves as a metaphor for the feeling of getting old and being replaced, Toy Story 2 begins to use the existence of a toy as a metaphor for the fleeting nature of life. The toys have this looming threat hanging over them at all times – the knowledge that Andy is guaranteed to abandon them after a certain number of years – and so of course Toy Story 3 was necessary to bring that tale to its logical conclusion.

With Finding Nemo, the film is a fantastic allegory for parenting, with Marlin playing the role of an overprotective father paranoid about his son doing anything on his own, and by the end, he must learn to let go. It also serves as a metaphor for learning how to raise a child with special needs. With that in mind, Finding Dory really does not add any thought that was not explored in the previous film. Many of the emotional beats derive from Dory’s parents learning to raise her as a person who can overcome her disability, but is any of it substantially different from Marlin’s interactions with Nemo? Not really.

Beyond the parenting stuff, the movie is also trying to say that the concept of family should not be limited to who you are literally related to. But even this is only thrown out there as an idea in the final act, and it was sort of covered in Finding Nemo, too.

So why did this film need to exist? A sequel should be made because the original left some sort of unfinished thought. Finding Nemo did not, and Finding Dory simply recovers the exact same territory a second time for no discernible reason.

The movie also does not have a sense of wonder like Finding Nemo did. In that movie, crossing the ocean felt like such an overwhelming and impossible journey, and all the setbacks the characters encountered had a major impact and seemed like the end of the road. So much of the film is spent just trying to escape from a single fish tank. It all matters so much.

In Finding Dory, no setback is introduced that isn’t solved within moments in an incredibly cartoonish fashion, as the characters jump around from place to place, fly through the air, and drive cars down highways. In the finale of Finding Nemo, flying in Nigel’s mouth was a crazy, last ditch effort that carried with it all this weight, but in Dory, Nemo and Marlin fly with Becky like it’s nothing. Plus, it’s hard to get particularly invested in the plot of Dory because after a while, we realize the writers will simply get themselves out of every corner with a convenient flashback.

Because Finding Dory is confined mainly to the aquarium, there is no sense of adventure and exploration. The original movie had so many interesting set pieces, from the shark chase to the jellyfish escape sequence. We get to explore all these different areas of the ocean, constantly seeing new things and learning more about how the rules of this universe operate. We get none of that in Dory since all we’re really seeing is a regular aquarium of no real significance. The ocean is so incredibly vast, and there are so many more environments and scenarios that could have been explored. Instead, we mostly get a bunch of tanks in rooms.

The plot is pretty straightforward, too. Weirdly so. As we approached the third act, I kept waiting for the twist that would gut me and put the whole experience into a new context. That’s something Pixar is usually great at, and it doesn’t always just have to be a surprising plot development; it’s more like the movie suddenly going in a creative direction you might not anticipate from the logline. “Ah,” you think to yourself. “That’s what the movie has really been building towards this whole time.” In Inside Out, it’s the realization after demonizing sadness so much that sadness can actually be a good thing. In Monsters University, it’s the thesis that you can fail at something and not have it be the end of the world, because not everyone is good at everything. Even the original Finding Nemo took me by surprise in that despite the film’s title and premise being about tracking down and holding on to this character, the final conflict becomes all about letting him go.

There was no third act turn like that in Finding Dory. Dory sets out wanting to find her parents because she misses them. After some conveniently expositional flashbacks placed at random intervals, she finds them. It turns out, they are still alive and were waiting for her ever since she got lost. Now they’re reunited. The end. That’s it?

Along the way there are some setbacks and adventures, sure, but the overall structure is something absolutely anyone would come up with off the top of their head after hearing nothing but the title Finding Dory. Can’t Pixar do better that what we all expect? I wanted to be blown away by some genius bits of movie magic I could have never thought of myself, and Dory never provided that thrill. I left the theater with this bizarre unresolved feeling, as if there had to be something more missing from the reel. It was like Monsters University if it ended at the scare games, or Inside Out if it ended with Joy and Sadness returning to headquarters and making seemingly no major revelations along the way.

There’s a real sense of deja-vu to the movie, but I just had to keep wondering why it is we’re even in this world again. Why did Pixar return to Finding Nemo at all? You would think it was because they figured out they had some compelling story left to tell – an a-ha moment – and so they simply had to revisit the universe. I simply can’t imagine Toy Story without Toy Story 2. I can imagine Monsters Inc. without Monsters University, but the latter film at least explored completely new ground in its third act that was never touched upon in the original.

Finding Dory feels like it was handed as an assignment to a group of people who had no real idea why Finding Nemo needed a sequel, and they never came up with one. It’s not Pixar’s worst movie, but after the greatness of the 2003 film, it’s the one that left me the most disappointed, and more than anything, it left me even more terrified about Toy Story 4. 

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