I have to confess that before the movie started, there was a trailer that made me laugh harder than I’ve laughed in a theater for quite some time. A feral child with strange powers. Concerned adults. Mysterious monsters. And then I realized I was watching a gritty reboot of Pete’s Dragon. I didn’t stop laughing until after Finding Dory started.
Since not that many people have seen it, and many have forgotten it, the ’70s movie Pete’s Dragon was a dopey musical with Helen Reddy, Mickey Rooney, and a really poorly integrated animated dragon that was more goofy than anything. I mean, it wasn’t even slightly scary. Or exciting. Or noteworthy, for that matter. It was just the sort of sub-level “family friendly” product Disney was putting out back then. Don’t let people tell you they’re remaking a classic. It’s not: It was mostly (in the ’70s) just a sad reminder that the once cutting-edge technologically and artistically company had more-or-less given up and decided to live off the reputation of their founder.
This isn’t as severe a digression as it seems because if we’ve learned anything about Lasseter’s tenure as head of Disney animation, it’s that he’s done them a world of good. The last three big animated pictures, Tangled, Frozen and Zootopia have all shifted directions late into their production, and this has been all to their credit, as well as being the sort of thing that wouldn’t be allowed under the penny-pinching Eisner days.
But, if we’re being honest, we have to concede that Pixar has suffered. Now, maybe it would’ve anyway. Cars 2 was fundamentally backwards. And while Brave, Monsters University and Inside Out are good, I’m not sure they stand, as a set, at the level of the company’s previous work, before you even factor in The Good Dinosaur. And now we have Finding Dory.
Sequels are always dicey, but historically only for other companies. I maintain, still, that the only great movie trilogy is Toy Story. And the reason it works, and why I haven’t been afraid of Pixar doing sequels, is that they seem to wait for the right idea. They’re as far away from “Let’s get the next movie out ASAP” as you can get, with over a decade passing between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3. (Though, this was partly due to limitations imposed by their contract with Disney.)
Finding Dory, however, does none of the things you expect a sequel to do: Yes, the three principles are back (Marlon, Dory and Nemo) but the familiar characters are left after the first 10 minutes or so of the film, and not revisited again until the denouement. Any other company would’ve given us 20 minutes of sea turtles and seagulls and sharks—the sharks aren’t back at all in this—and all those other characters that gave us a laugh. (This is how sequels dilute their own franchise.)
Tonally, this film is entirely different, too: Nemo was measured. Mellow in parts, punctuated with terrific moments of action. This suited Marlon’s character as the neurotic who’s in constant fear by contrasting him with the scope and serenity of the (let’s face it, entirely fictional and fantastically benign) ocean.
Dory, on the other hand, is almost entirely action. It’s fast-paced, occasionally frenetic, and very claustrophobic, since it is set almost entirely at the Morro Bay Aquarium. (By the way, the Morro Bay Aquarium, as envisioned here, does not exist. There is an aquarium in Morro Bay, but it is primarily a seal rescue, generally hard up for cash, and a sort of sad affair relative to the shiny Sea World-esque Aquarium in this movie. However, such a super-duper aquarium is planned for the area, which is kind of interesting.) Besides being fast-paced, it’s also very cartoonish. Our fishy heroes sometimes seem like they’re spending more time out of the water than in it.
Well, that’s the other sequel dilemma, isn’t it? Do you recycle all the characters? Do you remake it in the same tone? Don’t you run the risk of feeling like you’ve cloned yourself, poorly? I mean, this is what gets Cars 2, after all: They decided to recycle the specific “Lightning McQueen won’t let ‘Mater be ‘Mater” storyline, instead of the larger “Sometimes being a self-involved jackass hurts people you love” concept.
So, yeah: Dory is different. I believe in the first movie, the whole thing about Dory’s short-term memory loss was just a gag. But they’ve developed it here into its own thing: Rather than being a member of a fish species with a short memory, Dory is (essentially) brain-injured, kind of like Leonard in Memento. They don’t put it that way, of course. She’s just different and has trouble remembering. And so she got lost and has never found her way home.
It works, basically. Andrew Stanton returns to write and direct after the disastrously marketed John Carter and he definitely reminds us that Pixar can bring out both the jokes and the feels with the facility of true artists. The star of the new movie is a grouchy, anti-social octopus played by Ed O’Neill, but there are also a couple of lovable, dysfunctional white critters (a beluga whale and a white dolphin, respectively), Dory’s parents, and so on. They are humanized in ways you’d wish live action films would bother to humanize their characters.
So, we enjoyed it. We were surprised when we didn’t expect to be surprised. It wasn’t porridge, as the Boy likes to say.
But was it great? I don’t think so. Better than most of the animated films to come out this year? Yeah, probably, though not better than Zootopia, I think. Note that it may be the #1 box office movie of the year. It is currently, I mean, and it may stay that way. (There’s a new Star Wars due out at the end of the year, I think, and we all know how those freaks buy tickets like they’re putting money in the collection plate. No, I can’t really back any of this up. I just feel like poking Star Wars fans.) So, why does a movie that rates better (for both audience and critics) do $100M less at the box office (and growing)?
Because it’s a sequel to a beloved franchise.
Just keep that in mind the next time you think Hollywood’s gone nuts with the sequels, reboots and remakes: They are handsomely rewarded for doing so.
Unless it’s Ghostbusters.