As a culture stuffed to the brim with information, we're haunted by the possibility of memory loss. Many of us live in fear of sinking into a gray existential twilight where every face is a stranger, and no place is a home.
The latest Pixar animation contains a scene that embodies that possibility as chillingly as a Lars von Trier film (if a lot more fleetingly). It also features undersea slapstick, cuddle-prone otters, bantering fish, manic chase scenes and bossy sea lions voiced by the stars of "The Wire" (Dominic West and Idris Elba).
In other words, Finding Dory is just another day at the office for Pixar, whose stock in trade is making children squeal in delight and adults cry (and then laugh, and then cry again). While it may not be quite the animation revelation that Finding Nemo was in 2003, Dory benefits from the steady hand of returning cowriter-director Andrew Stanton. It's an above-average sequel with a quiet message about the value of fish — or people — whose brains work differently from the norm.
In the first film, blue tang Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) was the irrepressibly jaunty sidekick who accompanied anxious clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) on his quest to recover his beloved spawn, Nemo (voiced in the sequel by Hayden Rolence). Now Dory and her tendency to "suffer from short-term memory loss" are front and center.
That's the phrase that Dory's loving parents (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) coach her to use in a flashback prologue that's cute and unsettling in equal measures. Their fear for their offspring's future is palpable — and justified, as tiny Dory promptly succumbs to the undertow and forgets her way home. From there, the narrative jumps to one year post-Nemo, when the adult Dory abruptly regains a memory of her parents and her birthplace on the California coast.
Marlin and Nemo accompany Dory on her subsequent quest to find her folks, but they don't add a ton to the sequel besides friendship and familiarity. Dory is more dynamic on her own or interacting with various critters in the aquarium where the trail leads her. There the compulsively friendly fish meets her foil, an ornery octopus named Hank (Ed O'Neill) who insists he'd rather "live in a glass box" than among his own kind. Initially contemptuous of Dory's Pollyanna-ish disposition, he gradually develops a sneaky admiration for her.
So does the audience. It's a tribute to DeGeneres' light touch that Dory's perpetual sunniness doesn't come across as forced. Her sociability is survival strategy and compensation for her fluctuating memory. But it's also genuine and gives weight to her Zen credo: "Just keep swimming."
The aquatic world of Dory doesn't teem with as many fascinating details as the mammalian world of spring's Zootopia, but it has its share of clever visual gags, many of them occasioned by Hank's camouflaging abilities. While the dialogue is never groan-inducing, the most memorable creatures are the ones that haven't mastered speech, such as a scatter-brained yet helpful loon named Becky.
This is no Inside Out, nor is it Memento with a fish. Breakneck, kid-friendly action outweighs the darker elements of Dory; the plot eventually does take Dory to that dark night of the soul, but it leaves no doubt that she will emerge. The message is strong and simple: Those who are different shouldn't be shunned, and no one can navigate our oceanic world without a little help from their friends.
A little more radically, the film also suggests that Dory's forgetful brain gives her certain advantages that long-memoried fish (and people) lack, such as a capacity to seize and live in the moment. And there's enough joy in Finding Dory to make us happy to keep swimming right along with her.