Tuesday, June 28, 2016

'Finding Dory' review

Telling someone what I think of Finding Nemo is almost a surefire way to ensure that I never talk to that person again. As a kid, I grew up on Pixar movies like Toy Story (I watched it so much that I wore down the VHS tape), Monsters Inc. (my first movie in theaters), The Incredibles, and even A Bug's Life. By that measure, Nemo should have been right up my alley. And yet, I never really enjoyed the film that much. Even as a kid, I thought it was kinda boring, and now, I firmly believe that it is one of the most overrated animated movies ever made. It's splashy and entertaining, but deliberately paced and overlong, featuring some of Pixar's darkest and most obvious emotional pulls. By all accounts, it is a good film with some strong sequences, but I would still rank it near the bottom of the Pixar canon. I'm definitely in the minority (especially with people around my age who grew up with the film), and yet, I've always stood by that opinion.

So when Disney/Pixar and director Andrew Stanton announced that they were moving forward with a sequel to Finding Nemo surrounding the adventures of forgetful sidekick Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), I wasn't excited at all. Finding Dory wasn't on any of my most anticipated lists, nor did I even muster up any interest when the initial reviews came back positive. I was skeptical until the moment that I sat down in the theater to watch it. Much to my welcome surprise, Finding Dory ended up being a truly great film. It may even be better than its predecessor, which I know would be considered blasphemy by many people in my generation. Faster and funnier, but filled with the same sweet emotional core, Finding Dory overcomes Pixar's spotty sequel record to become a glorious animated journey.

Set one year after the events of Finding Nemo (although it has been just over 13 years in the real world), Finding Dory centers around the titular character's adventure to find her family. She suffers from short-term memory loss, but as the film begins, things start to pop back into Dory's head. A series of clues leads Dory to recall the Marine Life Institute in California, which is where she believes that her parents are staying. Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) go along for the ride with a little help from Crush (director Andrew Stanton), helping Dory after her assistance in their last journey. Once they reach the Marine Life Institute, the search becomes a frenzied, wacky journey through the massive aquarium. With help from a cynical octopus (Ed O'Neill), a near-sighted shark (Kaitlin Olson), and a beluga whale (Ty Burrell), the trio of friends will embark on a wild ride to reunite Dory with her long-lost family.

One of the main problems with Finding Nemo is its pacing. It runs 100 minutes long, but whenever I mention that to someone, they're shocked. It's a slow-moving film, with very few action scenes and an excess of pitch-black emotional trauma. The opening scene of Finding Nemo is still one of the most horrific setpieces that Pixar has ever done, and the adult tone of that film hangs over it like a cloud, suffocating the pacing and the characters at times. Along with Wall-E, Ratatouille, and the opening minutes of Up, it's one of the few Pixar films geared specifically for grown-ups, and I suspect that this is one of the main reasons why it never connected with me as a kid (although that certainly doesn't explain why I still can't find much to love in it now).

Finding Dory has a decidedly lighter tone, and that often works towards the film's benefit. It maintains the studio's singular focus on character development and emotion, but it also has plenty of fun in the process. There's an urgency and a kookiness to the action that is unparalleled by most Pixar films. Finding Dory jumps from location to location, focusing on colorful chase sequences, great character moments, and high-energy action. It has a great flow, one that has more in common with The Incredibles or Cars than it does with its predecessor. For a film that I was expecting to work as a flat cash grab, Dory is loaded with energy and purpose, and each scene made me feel invested in the action and the characters. That's not an easy thing to do, but this film accomplishes that task with ease.

The film pairs its energetic action beats with another pathos-filled story that feels like essential Pixar. The emotion doesn't come as naturally as it does in, say, Inside Out or Toy Story 3 (both hard films to be compared to), but there's no doubt that many audience members will shed a tear at some point or another during this film. In fact, I've seen friends say that they cried multiple times throughout Finding Dory, which isn't altogether shocking. But I didn't. I didn't shed a tear at all, and as some of you may know, I'm a sucker for Pixar movies. The connection between Dory and her two families is deeply felt, but it never pushes you over the edge. It's extremely satisfying, and I love the way that Stanton balances humor and sadness in the script. It just never pushes hard enough, which was a somewhat welcome change of pace from the studio that almost seems to relish in wrecking the emotions of full-grown men and women.

Finding Dory's greatest asset may be its memorable and hilarious new characters, who often emerge as a step up from the supporting cast in the original. The standout is Ed O'Neil's Hank, a shape-shifting, chameleon-like octopus who puts on a cynical appearance, but is really a sweet and sympathetic character. Hank is both one of Pixar's most impressive visual creations, and one of their funniest characters, stealing pretty much every scene that he's in. Fellow Modern Family cast member Ty Burrell is brilliant as Bailey, the somewhat neurotic beluga whale who becomes critical to Dory's success. Burrell works well with Kaitlin Olson, who is equally terrific as the powerful, but physically impaired whale shark. Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy make brief appearances as Dory's parents, while Idris Elba and Dominic West are hysterical as Fluke and Rudder, two sea lions. Becky and Gerald, two characters without many lines, are also scene-stealers.

I thought that Pixar's animation quality may have reached its peak last year with the sumptuous and exceptionally detailed The Good Dinosaur, but they somehow continue to get better and better. Finding Dory is bright, bubbly, and gorgeous, capturing the beauty of the ocean in even more detail than Finding Nemo, while also displaying a zaniness that is infectious. Each character is beautifully designed and the settings are a sight to behold, which gives Dory even more upside that I didn't expect. The story feels recycled in some ways, but I love the fact that the filmmakers took this opportunity to explore different locations and characters instead of going even deeper into retread territory. The visual look, led by Stanton, is a huge part of what makes this film feel fresh.

Pixar knocked the Toy Story sequels out of the park, but floundered with Cars 2 and Monsters University. I figured that Finding Dory, a much-delayed sequel that Stanton seemed to push off forever, would fall into the latter category. Instead, it's giving me hope for the seemingly endless line of Pixar sequels that are coming down the pipeline in the next few years. Filled with heart, energy, and a great sense of fun, Finding Dory is a journey worth taking that might just surpass the original. The new characters are great, the animation is stunning, and for many, the tears will come often. It's flat-out terrific. Many people came into this film with sky-high expectations, and so far, many people seem to be welcoming Dory with open arms, saying that it lived up to the hype. In my view, it's simply the summer's biggest surprise.

Note: The short that plays before this movie, entitled Piper, is a blast. Probably one of Pixar's best shorts in years.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                             (8.4/10)

Image Credits: Telegraph, Guardian, Coming Soon, Joblo

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