This review is dedicated to Cynda Pierce. I have recently suffered some heavy setbacks to my work as a writer. Cynda’s generous support of this website made a timely trip to the movies — and this review — possible. I’m grateful for her gift of encouragement, and her membership among the Looking Closer Specialists.

She’s a fish. With serious short-term memory loss. Who has been separated from her family and her home for years. And who doesn’t know how to find her way home because, well… she can’t remember much of anything. There’s just this impulse in her heart saying “Seek! Find! Seek! Find!” There’s this emptiness where love used to be, and it says, “Heal me! Fill me up!”

Yeah, Finding Dory is a Pixar movie. So you’re right to assume that its big, broken heart beats loud and clear within moments of its beginning. When we hear its desperate, stumbling rhythm, our own broken hearts beat more powerfully in recognition.  And we are drawn in — almost all ages, almost all moviegoers — to the hope of the film’s promise: We will see some kind of reunion, reconciliation, and restoration before it’s over. We want to believe. It builds our faith.

little dory

It’s hard to believe that any movie — especially one stamped with the Disney brand — would have left such a huge plot thread untied and loosely wavering, like a long tendril of kelp, in the undersea currents. But Finding Nemo‘s central narrative question — Will poor Marlin make his way across the ocean to find poor little Nemo and bring him home? — was so compelling that our joy in its resolution was enough to send us home happy, undistracted by the fact that the memory of their traveling companion Dory remained a blank slate.

That question recently surged to the surface of our moviegoing memories, thanks to Pixar’s massive marketing effort for Finding Dory. And yeah, like most moviegoers, I went for the bait of it: Hey! Why is she so forgetful? And what important things might she have forgotten?

So I was happy to be caught, reeled in, and dropped in the bucket for another voyage across Pixar’s gleaming waters.

Dory and Destiny

My trust in Pixar as a studio remains strong, despite a couple of disappointments along the way. (Everybody brings those sub-standard titles up, so I don’t have to.) And my trust in Andrew Stanton as a director and storyteller remains unshaken. (No, I don’t think the box office failure of John Carter has anything to do with the quality of the movie itself, which I found to be a lot of fun.)

I did feel some trepidation as I took my seat, though. Did I really want a sequel to what I consider to be Pixar’s most beautifully realized film, its most perfect execution of its narrative strengths? Could a follow-up do anything but dilute the formula?

Well, if you go in expecting a landmark like Finding Nemo, you’ll be disappointed, because what was so landmark-y — watermark-y? — about that film was its animated environment. We’d never seen anything like its sumptuous colors, its dreamy slow-motion currents, its filtered light and murky shadows. To be immersed in such a beautiful aquarium for 90 minutes was like enjoying the best bath ever. I came out feeling baptized, blinking, reluctant to return to the harsh angles and fierce lights of the cineplex. Finding Dory, by comparison, has no equivalent revelation to deliver. And yet, it makes the most of its time under the sea — and it makes much of its surprisingly frenzied adventures above the surface.

Hank and Dory 2

So if you want to go back to a favorite place, revisit familiar faces, and have a new adventure that allows you to explore more of that world, well… dive on in. The water’s fine. Come for the supremely confident (if overly familiar) Pixar-distinct storytelling. Laugh in disbelief at what feels like a playful new recklessness in the humor. Enjoy a first-rate cast of voice actors: Ellen Degeneres manages to avoid letting her talkative character become shrill or annoying, and the supporting cast are strong without overdoing anything. (My favorite, this time around, is an unexpected contribution from Sigourney Weaver.)

And, as long as the end-credits may be, don’t move. Stay for the most satisfying end-credits gag of all time.

I shouldn’t have to tell you this, as it’s a Pixar film, but yes: Bring tissues. You may cry. I did.

Even though it’s about a fish. With a short-term memory problem.

Courtesy of Disney/Pixar.
Courtesy of Disney/Pixar.

Why did I cry, yet again, at a Pixar movie? I’ve never lost my memory, nor have I forgotten my way home to my parents.

But I, too, have gaps in my heart that I cannot fill. (I suspect that you do too.) I have questions I cannot answer. (So say we all.) Forgive the cryptic confession: But I know that I too have been living, for many years, in a context that is not my home, not knowing how to get out of there, and not knowing what to do if I ever did. Somewhere along the way, in the aftermath of a calamity I could not control, I was caught in an undertow of change that dragged me from my heart’s natural habitat and left me “stuck” in a sort of “holding tank,” unable to go back, unable to move forward, misunderstood, and taken for granted. I let my fears of the unknown persuade me to choose this out-of-placeness over the risk of seeking a place where I belong.

And somehow, this story of a fish who feels helpless and insecure, but who seizes a moment of courage and launches herself out into the unknown… it made me feel hopeful.


And that’s not all I take away from Finding Dory.

I think one of the keys to this movie comes late in its running time: a conversation about the problem with relying too heavily on a plan. Dory discovers that while her life has not gone according to plan, many of life’s best gifts have come unexpectedly — outside of a plan.

This feels like a sort of meta-comment on the movie. Finding Dory does follow certain conventional storytelling beats — and I, like Mike D’Angelo, was a little disappointed by the predictability of the film’s “focus on the family” trajectory, and by the abruptness of its resolution. But despite the familiar narrative scaffolding, which fits what they taught in the Pixar storytelling masterclass I once attended, the most memorable joys of the journey are the things that artists undoubtedly  “discovered” in the course of spontaneous play, in the progress of asking “What if?” moment by moment. Finding Dory is loaded with such happy accidents and surprises.

One of them, Hank the Octopus (sorry — Septypus!) almost takes over the movie. Flamboyant and full of surprises, he’s a joy to watch. I’ll bet he wasn’t so prominent in early drafts. I think the artists just fell in love with all of the ways he could enliven a scene, and they kept on discovering new things they wanted to do with him. And you know what happens when artists love their own creation: The audience loves him too.

While my own journey has been one of botched and bungled plans, a few wrong turns, and many days squandered in paralyzing doubt, I must admit that many of my life’s best blessings came unexpectedly along the way. And hopefully I can see them as ways that that the Great Storyteller has been prompting me to head homeward, to start finding my way back to the place that I belong. More surprises, I dare to believe, will emerge.

Master Stanton, if you’re reading this: Thank you! Thank you for refusing to settle for just another sequel. Thank you for insisting on taking us to new places. Thank you for writing a story that will enrich the experience of revisiting the original. Thank you for refusing to give in to that sequel-maker’s worst temptation: “Go darker.” By returning to big, joyous, heartfelt filmmaking — after the industry dealt you an unjust and injurious blow — you inspire me. I, too, want to get back to the work I was meant to do. I don’t want disrespect, disappointment, or calamity to have the last word in my creative life. If you can get back up and do this after the way that you’ve been treated, well… maybe I can too.

Must-Read Reviews of Finding Dory

I highly recommend that you check out these responses to Finding Dory:

Daniel Melvill Jones:

There is lots to love about the film. I enjoyed the relentless creativity that seemed to find its focus when the filmmakers limited themselves to the confines of the Marine Life Institute. The new characters, all with physical or attitude issues, were a constant delight. I admired how it emphasized that both family and close friendships play unique roles in life. But what captivated me was how the story of Dory’s memory loss related to my own life.

Steven Greydanus:

Finding Dory is pleasant, amusing, modestly clever and occasionally moving, though it never approaches the emotional or creative heights of Finding Nemo, the greatest father-son story in Hollywood animation history and one of the best American cartoons ever made.