It’s been thirteen years since Finding Nemo came out, so I’m not very surprised to have forgotten that the titular fish was disabled. Of course I remembered Marlin (Albert Brooks) searching for his lost son with well-meaning help from the forgetful Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), and the message to parents about relaxing and letting their children grow up and out into the world. Looking back, it must have carried an extra layer of poignancy to families with children facing physical challenges like Nemo’s underdeveloped fin.
Finding Dory flips this story to talk about parents who did everything they could to help their child succeed despite her challenges. And it does so from the perspective of the grown daughter, who realizes in hindsight what her parents did for her. Which itself is no mean feat, since she can barely remember what happened a few minutes ago, much less years.
In 2003 Dory’s memory loss easily came off as a riff on the common belief about goldfish memories, maybe infused with a nodding reference to Memento for the hipper parents in the audience. But with the recent spike in traumatic brain injuries and associated mental difficulties among returning soldiers, the joke is a bit less funny. Dory’s image needed to be rehabilitated from a forgetful, even ditzy bit of comic relief to a person living with a disability and doing the best she can.
Which, since Finding Nemo, has involved help from Nemo (Hayden Rolence this time) and Marlin. But when the teacher at Nemo’s school tells the kids about migration and the instinct to go home, something inside her shakes loose. It’s unclear to Dory what it means, but she knows she has to follow it. The one solid clue she can remember is something about “the jewel of Morro Bay, California”.
That’s on the other side of the ocean from Dory’s new home, but Marlin knows a turtle who can help them ride the currents. Once there, they find the Monterey Marine Life Institute, as a helpful public address loop recorded by Sigourney Weaver (Sigourney Weaver) points out. Dory gets inside in her usual way: by accident. She gets scooped up and tossed into quarantine, ready to be shipped off to an aquarium in Cleveland. But she wants to find her parents inside, and that will take help from Hank (Ed O’Neil), a grumpy, jumpy octopus — well, septopus now — who wants her ticket to a nice safe aquarium away from the open ocean.
Dory’s search is cut back and forth with flashbacks to her childhood (voiced by Sloane Murray), where we see her parents (Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton) patiently teaching her how to get by with her short-term memory loss. The strain and worry are clear to us, but they put on brave faces and keep trying. It’s a rare film about people with disabilities that acknowledges and respects the difficulties faced by friends and family, but also shows them loving and caring, and yet also keeps the humanity of the person at the center rather than celebrating the caregivers. That Finding Dory threads that needle so effortlessly would be a minor miracle even if it wasn’t piled on top of the sort of flashback-heavy story structure that’s notoriously difficult to pull off.
This might not be quite the best that Pixar has ever offered, but it’s a lot better than it might have been; long-delayed sequels have not been faring well this year. Besides, it’s hardly fair to knock a movie for not being Inside Out. Finding Dory exudes a warmth and generosity that’s rare even among kids’ fare these days, and together with Finding Nemo it makes a perfect pair.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.