“Finding Dory” can be described in exactly the same way as its title character: good-natured, funny, optimistic, darting from place to place, ranging from anxious to frenzied in tone, and unable to sustain an idea for more than a few moments.
The little blue tang from “Finding Nemo,” the animated Oscar-winner of 2003, comes back just as we last saw her. Disney hasn’t softened or cured her short-term memory loss, so she remains one of the rare disabled characters in an animated film.
Yet the behavior that entertained us there can be exhausting when she’s elevated to the leading role. She’s never calm or reflective, except for brief periods; she mutters to herself constantly out of frustration, and she has to discuss every decision aloud. The movie takes its tone from her.
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Writer-director Andrew Stanton (working with co-director Angus MacLane) begins one year after Nemo and daddy Marlin (Hayden Rolence and Albert Brooks) have returned to the safety of the reef. Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) suddenly recalls she has parents she hasn’t seen in years and sets out to find them, with Nemo and Marlin in worried pursuit.
Now the film turns madcap. We meet a nearsighted whale shark that bumps into things (Kaitlin Olson), a beluga whale who kvetches about poor echolocation (Ty Burrell), a cockeyed seabird that never speaks and a cynical octopus (Ed O’Neill) who agrees to aid Dory if she’ll help him get sent to an aquarium in Cleveland. (This is a rare mistake for Pixar, which usually depicts animals as they are. Octopi are extremely intelligent animals that loathe captivity.)
Peril after peril follows, with fish nearly drowning in air, landing in dangerous waters, even having to break out of a transport truck. Stanton revs up the pace so quickly that I couldn’t figure out exactly where Dory and her parents were or how they’d gotten into or out of trouble, and a long car chase seems like a desperate move to keep kids from fidgeting.
Yet the movie has plenty of heart and a message which, if not always subtle, remains worth hearing: All of us have strengths and weaknesses, while qualities that disable us in one way might enable us in another. DeGeneres makes a character who could easily become irritating seem buoyant and hopeful instead. Superb visuals place us right inside Dory’s liquid world: Pixar has always produced better water effects than any other animator, and the light cutting through the 3-D depths looks lifelike.
Director Alan Barillaro, Stanton’s supervising animator on “WALL-E,” makes his directing debut with the six-minute “Piper.” It precedes the feature and tells a similar story with no words: A baby sandpiper who’s afraid of water overcomes his fear and finds a new way to dig for shells. This peaceful bauble is like the section of a roller-coaster where the car slowly ascends before the lightning rush to the finish.
P.S. The title “Finding Dory” makes no sense, except to link the sequel back to the beloved “Nemo.” Dory isn’t lost!
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Hayden Rolence.
Director: Andrew Stanton, Angus MacLane.
Length: 97 minutes.
Rating: PG (mild thematic elements).