Film review: Pixar’s ‘Finding Dory’ is great fun, but is that enough?

June 22, 2016, 7:20 a.m.

Warning: after the first two paragraphs, this article contains light spoilers.

You don’t need to be told to see “Finding Dory,” a neither inventive nor disposable piece of pretty Pixar candy. It’s shaping up to be the summer’s biggest hit. Critics have issued their thumbs-ups. Kids and parents are pleased. Obviously, this is a nicely-done matinee blockbuster deserving of all the money it’s got coming. But should our “taste” buds approve of a reheated “Finding Nemo”? It’s a college-age generation’s sworn duty to check this long-expected sequel out. But that doesn’t mean it bodes well for Pixar’s sequel-heavy future. “Finding Dory” is great, but not Pixar great.

“Finding Dory” is as good a Pixar sequel cash-in as can be. The story elaborates on a mysterious, wonderfully dark joke from the first movie (A joke that was better left unexplained.) In “Finding Nemo,” Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) explained her short-term memory loss to Marlin (Albert Brooks): “It runs in my family. Or, at least, I think it does. Hmm…where are they….Can I help you?” This joke has been padded here to fit a formulaic 100 minutes of occasionally gripping, maybe-tear-inducing Pix drama.

“Finding Dory” is the Pixar formula at its most brutally noticeable. The formula, roughly: a gripping prelude (varying in time from a fast 300 seconds in “Finding Dory,” to ten minutes in “Up” and “Inside Out,” to a half-hour in “Wall-E”) where a cutesy mood is set; where Pix’s world-building leaves us stupefied in googly-eyed wonder; and where tears are shed. Then, a challenge. Follow-up: A zippy action scene where Pix shows off all the nifty things CG animation is capable of. Some weird friends are brought along the way. A half-hour of cute-ha-ha scenes where absolutely nothing can go wrong. Absolutely everything goes wrong. Twenty minutes of the characters at their lowest point. Aside from the opening sequence, this is where the Pix team turns on the spigot of tears for the longest period of time. Then, fortunes are picked up; the characters overcome the challenge from the beginning. Everything ends happily, order restored, kids filled up with greasy popcorn and Icees; and everyone goes home, awaiting the next Pix wow. All throughout the film, themes of immense profundity (“Wall-E” and environmentalism; “Monsters, Inc.”-“Toy Story” and growing up; “Inside Out” and depression) are rechanneled into clean, bite-sized metaphors for adults to nod knowingly and for kids to go “whaaaa?” When they grow up, they’ll spend a weekend rewatching these films, soaking in the nostalgia, before marching off to go see “Inside Out II: Electric Boogaloo.”

There’s a reason why the formula works. Like a good pop song, it allows for multiple variations of a product that never change its core identity. Sometimes, the variations are really adventurous: Sophisticated art pieces (“Wall-E,” “Inside Out”) analogous to a Motown or a Beatles tune. Lately, though, this art-factory with notoriously high standards has been going slack, rather late Michael Jackson-ish. Pixar is increasingly relying on either CG splendor (“Good Dinosaur,” “Brave”), nostalgia-trips (“Monsters University” — what “Finding Dory” could have been, but thankfully wasn’t) or blatant cash-ins (“Cars 2”) to carry the weight of their products. When the formula is off-balance, it doesn’t work. A Pixar film must juggle these elements — commercial appeal, visual progress, appeal to all generations in equal spurts, thoughtful story-crafting — with equal pizazz. If not, the house comes tumbling down.

What of “Finding Dory,” then? Well, it never stumbles, but it doesn’t stupefy either. It’s safe filmmaking with an occasionally punchy scene, reminding you, “We’re still Pixar!” The queasy transitions from maudlin melodrama to action-packed splendor aside, “Finding Dory” is one hell of an entertainment from beginning to post-credits end. For all the moments where we’re forced to slog through the familiar Pix beats, we get rewarded with some of Pixar’s most deliriously absurd scenes. I’m, of course, talking about the ending — a ferocious combination of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” a runaway truck and a driving septopus that must be seen to be believed.

But I’m also talking about more obscure moments, like the minute-long encounter between Marlin, Nemo and a lonely clam (voiced by director Andrew Stanton, who also did the first “Nemo” and the masterpiece “Wall-E”). I couldn’t stop laughing; the chuckles just kept coming, me caught up in the hilarity of this briefest of moments. I shed tears during “Finding Dory,” but not of sadness (it doesn’t grab you by the throat like “Inside Out”). These were tears of joy, of hilarity, at the brilliance of the clam — his shell-valves clapping up-and-down like a 3D Pacman, burbling on and on about his love-life and how lonely he is. The scene doesn’t last longer than a minute or two, but this clam speaks to the termite-art soul, illuminating why and how the power of Pixar comes in the quietest, most downplayed moments.

Yet “Finding Dory’s” fervent commitment to the Pix formula has darker consequences. There’s a reason why I’m going on and on about the formula here: It’s so leadenly dead-and-center here. The narrative shifts aren’t concealed, the hands turning the spigot of tears are visible. Nothing seems as pure as it did in the glory days of the aughts. When Crush the Turtle makes a sudden appearance, bellowing “Righteous! Righteous!” like a malfunctioning animatron at Disneyland, you sense a disturbance. When this wasn’t a catch-phrase, it was golden; now, it carries an upsetting stench of staleness. The whole movie — milking the short-term memory loss gag for all it’s worth; the brilliant Albert Brooks reduced to repeating “Ooo-roo!” a hundred times to a blank-faced loon; the emotional climax feeling weirdly stilted for its expectedness — feels like it’s just pleasing fans, instead of pleasing and provoking thought.

A movie can only coast by nostalgia from a loyal fan-base for so long. Halfway through “Finding Dory”, one thinks, “Yeah, we’ve been waiting for this for 13 years; but is the product worth the wait?” A quick trip to the theater, a few joy-filled moments of seeing these characters creak back into their roles, and then — emptiness, the day goes on, the joy dissipates. “Finding Dory” doesn’t leave you with a gnawing impulse to watch it again and again and again, like Brad Bird’s weird “Ratatouille” or Pete Docter’s head-spinningly complex “Inside Out.” Somehow, Pix’s glory days seem to be slipping away.

“Finding Dory’s” brand of quickie engagement is symptomatic of sequels, where avant-garde impulses are sacrificed for a coasting-by safety. It’s particularly upsetting to see this kind of sequel-itis coming from Pixar, whose early-era originality set a high bar for animation studios, from Disney to Dreamworks. Before 2011’s “Cars 2,” even when Pixar made a sequel (“Toy Story 2”), the film wasn’t simply a crude rehash. It expanded upon the toys’ world, refusing to simply tap into the cheapness of a nostalgic trip. But once “Cars 2” came out and made big moola, the impulse seemed to suddenly change. Now, nostalgia was alright, as long as the story came first. But movie-by-movie, the stories ceased to excite like they used to: “Cars 2,” then “Monsters University” (like an awkward high-school reunion of the “Monsters” gang), then “Finding Dory.”

Even today’s Pixar originals (“Brave” and “Good Dinosaur”) cling to an apparent Pix mediocrity (which, again, is still better than whatever kitsch the Mouse serves up in his corny-copias). Docter’s “Inside Out,” alarmingly, proves the exception to this late-era slump. As a point of comparison, between 1998-2010, the opposite was the case: a mediocre movie like “Cars” (2006) was once the exception.

I’m afraid we may learn the wrong lessons from fine Pixar sequels like “Finding Dory.” It’s no discredit to Stanton and his incredible team, of course, but it does raise alarm-bells of concern for those of us who remember the string of Pix original hits. Three of Pixar’s next four projects are sequels: Yet another “Cars” movie (we can guess why); a “Toy Story” film that (no matter how good it is) will upset the trifecta’s already-perfect balance; and a second “Incredibles” (which I don’t care for as much as others).

It’s ironic that “Finding Dory” moralizes kids on being avant-garde, chaotic, improvisatory, Zhuangzian, ready to take on life’s challenges with an embrace of the slippery unknown. It’s ironic, because “Finding Dory” is none of these things. It’s fun and funny, sure, but is that all Pixar can supply nowadays?

Contact Carlos Valladares at [email protected]

Carlos Valladares is a senior double-majoring in Film and American Studies. He loves the Beatles and jazz, dogs and dance. Were he stranded on a desert island, he'd be sure to take some food— and also, copies of "A Hard Day's Night," "The Young Girls of Rochefort," "Nashville," "Killer of Sheep," and anything by Studio Ghibli. You can follow his film writings at He was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles.

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