Published Jun 17, 2016There's no denying that Pixar is in a bit of a rut these days, give or take an Inside Out. With the exception of that film, it's been six long years since the once-bulletproof studio made a film that came close to their late-2000s run. Still, Finding Dory works as an example of a studio working out its growing pains in real time and on screen, functioning as a messy but fascinating piece of art.
With this film, it's clear Pixar wants to figure out a comfortable middle ground between their franchise-minded Disney bedfellows, Marvel and Star Wars, and the kinds of films they used to make, one-and-dones like Ratatouille. Shedding the awkwardness of Cars 2 and Monsters University, Finding Dory works half the time, while pursuing narrative dead end after dead end for the other.
It works best when the film focuses on Dory, voiced with stunning emotional depth once again by Ellen DeGeneres. Pixar films used to be about the remarkable, transformative changes their characters go through, loaded with a mature amount of pathos for "children's films." From a French critic remembering the emotional value of art, to childhood toys accepting their inevitable death, they worked thanks to a clear narrative through-line imbued with thematic weight.
With its emphasis on the value of memory and family, Finding Dory feels almost reverse-engineered compared to the earlier films it's trying to evoke, but the way Stanton returns to moments in the original film to reveal a hidden sadness to Dory's character is very strong.
The other half of the time, the B-story — focused on Nemo and Marlin — mostly falls flat. The trio embark on yet another epic journey across the ocean (don't worry, the repetitiveness is commented on early), as Dory tries to find her long-lost family at a California ocean institute. Rather than spend its running time on another road movie, the journey wraps up by the end of the first act, leaving Dory scooped up by a team of researchers at the institute. Marlin and Nemo don't have much to do, but the film keeps cutting back to them, when its real strengths are found in the A-story.
The storylines eventually converge in the final act, an ambitious series of set pieces that feel ripped from a completely different film. There's no reason Finding Dory should end with a car chase, especially when the film provides an emotionally thrilling arc in the relationship Dory has with her parents.
Finding Dory lurches between two conflicting tones and paces: contemplative and emotional on one side; hyperactive and comedic on the other. It's even reflected in the jumpy editing. Perhaps it was Stanton's intention to evoke the mindset of Dory, to "just keep swimming" to the next story beat, but the film doesn't earn many of its moments.
Finding Dory is a disappointment compared to its predecessor, but it's interesting as a portrait of a studio stuck in identity crisis. By reflecting Pixar's past back on itself, Finding Dory takes on a sad sense of self-awareness, one its title character lacks. Perhaps rather than fragmenting its past glories further, the studio will be more successful next time in creating something new.