Saturday, 31 December 2016

Movie Review: Finding Dory (2016)



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One of the brightest feathers in Pixar’s cap, 2003’s Finding Nemo is a film that I watched the hell out of as a kid. Hell, it was the first film where I actually took time out to watch the director’s commentary for, and this was all pre-Critic bear in mind. That said, looking back on it, I was rather perplexed at how much I adored this movie… until I watched it again recently for the first time in many years. Wow. I seriously don’t recall the last time a film made me weep quite this much while watching it. A heart-warming story about family and the forces of nature, one without any real antagonist to it which is a serious rarity for family films, it holds up as one of Pixar’s genuine masterpieces. Naturally, with the studio in the process of making new installments to some of their most popular works like Toy Story, The Incredibles and Cars (notice how I said “popular”, not “good” because of that last one), they also decided to make a follow-up to Finding Nemo. If this was any other studio but Pixar, I would question this decision; however, after seeing what utter perfection they could cook up for prolonged franchises like Toy Story 3, I have quite a bit of faith that this film could work out. Let’s dive right in and find out. This is Finding Dory.


The plot: Forgetful fish Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), set off by a sudden flashback to her childhood, remembers that she has a family that she was separated from as a baby. Determined to find her, Dory sets off for California and follows the loose breadcrumb trail of memories she still has to (hopefully) reunite with them. Meanwhile, worried for her safety after their own misadventures involving finding their family again, Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son (Hayden Rolence) go after her to (again, hopefully) bring her back home safely.

The cast list here is absolutely amazing, both in the name talent brought in and the performances they bring to the production. DeGeneres and Brooks are still top-notch as Dory and Marlin, with DeGeneres in particularly being given a serious emotional workout as the film goes on, and Rolence as Nemo honestly fits really damn well into the role. Considering this film is set only one year after the first film, not thirteen years as per the actual time that has passed, he really helps solidify the feeling that not that much time in-story has passed. A lot of really cool double acts in this film: Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy as Dory’s parents are nice, Kaitlin Olson and Ty Burrell as two mis-matched whales are pretty funny and Idris Elba and Dominic West as two lazy seals bring a startling amount of personality to the characters, considering what little screen time they have to work with. Oh, and Ed O’Neill will never not be a delight to hear in a feature film, especially here as the grumpy octopus Hank.

Finding Nemo, when stripped of its fishy textures, is essentially a road trip movie. As such, it is typified by the pit stops made on that trip. And the stops made this time around are… ugh. Every fibre of my being wants to classify them as “forgettable” but that’s the kind of triteness that I spend a lot of mental energy trying to avoid. But frankly, it’s true. Don’t get me wrong, the new characters here are fun and all that, but they lack that iconic quality that the original had in abundance. And no, that’s not just the decade-long hindsight talking. The sharks who were in Fish-eaters Anonymous, the Tank Gang, the surfer turtles; okay, admittedly, the turtles make a return here which makes sense considering the lead turtle Crush is voiced by the film’s director, but the fact remains. Hank and Destiny are nice, but I don’t see them going into legend like Crush and Gill have.

While the underwater search for lost family plot has essentially been re-hashed here, the decision to go with Dory for this sequel was a pretty smart move for a number of reasons. Aside from being one of the more memorable characters in a film already chock-full of them, she also had a lot of potential as a source of drama. Once you put her into the forefront and focus solely on her individual journey, about finding her family that she barely even remembers having, essentially turns her into a living, breathing tension engine. This taps into that similar feeling that films like An American Tail and even this year’s Your Name did, where the drama makes you invested in the main character reuniting with their loved one(s) but also continually toys with the prospect of that reunion happening. I’d call it emotional manipulation, but like the best manipulators out there, it’s deft enough to obfuscate the obvious intent of the story behind characters worth wanting to see succeed in their quest. It also helps that it is quite effective in that regard, as the serious feels run rampant throughout this film and you can actively feel the skipped heartbeats when Dory’s memory loss kicks in. That said, while I’m already talking about manipulating elements to create drama, Dory’s condition is used to create drama but it’s not done in any exploitative kind of way.

If I have any real gripes with the original film, it’s that it didn’t exactly have the best approach in handling its mental conditions like Marlin’s PTSD or Dory’s memory loss; hell, there was an entire scene dedicated to poking fun at the conditions of the kids that Nemo was supposed to be going to school with. Marlin and Dory’s conditions were used to great and utterly heartbreaking effect, don’t get me wrong, but it was made a bit wonky by how the filmmakers were just as willing to make fun of it as they were to sympathize with it. Well, considering how the ecofriendly themes have been, these people have learnt from their mistakes. And I can point to a single line of dialogue to prove it. Long story short, Marlin ends up lashing out at Dory and saying that forgetting things is all that she’s good for. Yeah, it’s a pretty dickish thing to say, especially after all that they went through together, but here’s the catch: The film knows it wasn’t right and acknowledges it as the words of someone not thinking straight. Hell, Nemo ends up using to essentially mock him for the rest of the film because of that one line, in one of the best saving throws I’ve seen all year. What was once just a character trait designed for comedy with Dory's memory loss has become something a lot deeper and, honestly, kind of tragic; it’s not a laughing matter anymore. In the age we live in, where mental health is thankfully starting to get proper mainstream attention, this is precisely the move I would expect Pixar to make.

All in all, a very commendable and heartfelt continuation of what is already a beloved story. The acting is stellar, with Ellen DeGeneres managing to somehow outperform herself from the first film, the writing revives the original story with enough tweaks and variations to make it succeed, and the attention to emotional set-up and pay-off is well and truly in line with Pixar’s best work to date. I don’t see it holding up quite as well as the original as time goes on, but for what it’s worth, it’s a damn good film. It’s better than The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years, mainly because the sense of intentional nostalgia brought forward here is connected to something that actually is nostalgic for me. I love the Beatles, but I love Pixar more. However, in terms of emotional resonance, it’s not quite as strong as the genuinely depressing experience of Room.

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