In general, sequels always start at a disadvantage. When you are compared to an earlier film, you not only have to stand on your own, you have to match up with a film already established and add to its legacy. Some sequels (The Empire Strikes Back) accomplish this feat. Others (Men in Black II) do not. You can’t just be a good film. You have to be a worthwhile companion, a continuation that illuminates the first stories’ characters and themes. And “Finding Dory” is just an okay film; compared to its predecessor, it doesn’t measure up.
The film begins a year after the conclusion of “Finding Nemo.” Dory (voice of Ellen DeGeneres) lives with Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence), but she is lured on an adventure when she remembers her parents and how she lost them. The trio trek across the ocean to California and a rehabilitation center, encountering numerous animals along the way such as Hank (Ed O’Neill), a septopus that refuses to go back to the ocean, Bailey (Ty Burrell), a whale with broken echolocation, and Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a near-sighted shark.
If one were to view “Finding Dory” as its own film, the result would not be a negative experience. The visuals are great, the characters are fun and the story is pretty good. Dory goes from sidekick to protagonist very well, as she realizes her own worth despite her short-term memory loss.
The problem is that in the shadow of “Finding Nemo”, the film is lacking. Where “Nemo” is grand and adventuresome, “Dory” is claustrophobic. Where “Nemo” utilizes a full cast of characters, “Dory” keeps it simple and contained. Where “Nemo” was groundbreaking, “Dory” is a case of been-there, done-that.
Marlin and Nemo have far too little involvement in the story and their character arc is simple and perfunctory. If they were absent, no one would notice. Bailey and Destiny are entertaining as are several of the other smaller parts (such as the sea lions), but after so many great moments in the original, they feel lesser. Hank regularly steals the show when onscreen, but there is little motivation for why he does not want to go back to the ocean. Some sort of backstory would have really helped make his arc more interesting.
And the ending is a bit too trite and predictable. Even though this is a “kid’s movie” (a term I personally loathe), the happy conclusion waters down the emotion of the journey. In the original film, Nemo’s mother and all his siblings die. Darla murders fish. Marlin and Dory get stuck in the belly of a whale. Marlin nearly witnesses the death of his son twice. The grit and reality of life felt more real. Trauma and heartache were real emotions. “Dory” feels just a tad too cartoony, especially at the film’s conclusion. It lacks chutzpah.
“Finding Dory” is not a bad film, and taken on its own merits, it stands up as a fun, if uneven, outing. But it is just a pale shadow to the original.
★★★ (out of five)