While sequels have become ever more frequent in Hollywood, it's always fascinating to see a new one come from the folks at Pixar. While direct follow-ups have been a part of the studio's history almost since the beginning -- with Toy Story 2 being the company's third movie -- their tremendous history and success with original storytelling puts an extra bit of pressure on the projects, as they really have to be worthy successors to excuse the fact that they are taking away precious time from the exploration of completely new ideas. With the arrival of Andrew Stanton's Finding Dory, audiences will once again be looking through this particular lens, and what they'll find is a film that's certainly flawed, but a welcome back to a beautiful world filled with wonderful characters.
Picking up a short while after the events of Finding Nemo, the new movie begins with Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) pretty much right where we left her: happy, but also extremely forgetful, constantly dealing with her short-term memory loss. Living with Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence), she has certainly found a home for herself, and while she manages to occasionally frustrate those around her, she is constantly surrounded by others who care about her. Still, there is the lingering sense that something is missing, and it's while serving as a chaperone with Nemo's fish school that she realizes that it's a connection to her past and a relationship with her parents.
After an accident manages to jog her memory, Dory finds herself determined to make across the ocean to the Marine Life Institute in California, where she extremely vaguely remembers growing up and having a relationship with her mother (Diane Keaton) and father (Eugene Levy). She makes the trip alongside Marlin and Nemo, but the two parties wind up getting separated during their adventure -- leading Dory to team up with a seven-armed octopus named Hank (Ed O'Neil) to help find her parents; and the father-son Clown Fish duo stressing to reunite with their Blue Tang pal.
When viewing Finding Nemo and Finding Dory side-by-side, there are certainly comparisons that can be made in terms of structure and story -- the movie not entirely able to escape the repeat-y trap in which oh-so-many sequels find themselves falling. But efforts to soften those elements with plenty of "new" are mostly successful, and do elevate the feature beyond its immediate association. Vastly different than the Great Barrier Reef, the Marine Life Institute makes for a really wonderful backdrop, as it opens up a wide variety of ridiculous situations for Dory to find herself stuck in, be it searching for a way out of the medical quarantine unit with the help of her new cephalopod pal, or fighting through the unholy terror that is the "Touch Tank" (which kids will probably never look at the same way again). The wheels do start coming off as it veers deeper into the third act, as spoiler-filled events lead to a certain amount of momentum loss, and things get a touch too cartoony, but the film is consistently engaging and properly emotional.
In that same vein, as fun as it is to see the return of some of Pixar's most beloved characters, the best thing that Finding Dory really has going for it is the wide variety of ridiculous new friends that are introduced throughout the story. This includes not only the aforementioned Hank, a loveable curmudgeon who will do anything not to go back to the open ocean, but also the goofy, near-sighted whale shark Destiny (Kaitlin Olson); a beluga whale named Bailey (Ty Burrell) who is convinced that his echolocation is broken; and a pair of ridiculous and lazy sea lions named Fluke (Idris Elba) and Rudder (Dominic West) who give Marlin and Nemo the inside scoop on the Marine Life Institute. While playing a major part in moving the plot along, these characters not only provide the bulk of the film's big laughs - of which there are many -- but also drive home the important larger themes about self-empowerment and overcoming limitations.
As we've seen over the last 21 years, Pixar's history of storytelling is only matched by the incredible leaps and bounds the studio makes in the technical world of animation, and while Finding Dory doesn't exactly rank as one of the greatest tales the company has produced, it is still absolutely beautiful. There is a certain loss in taking the movie away from the open ocean and into more man-made environments, but it actually opens up opportunity for some tremendous visual contrasts, as the colors and vibrancy of the underwater world pops against the world of concrete structures and ordinary glass tanks. Andrew Stanton and his team also once again out-do themselves all around in the character design department -- with Hank in particular established as one of the most dynamic creations Pixar has designed (taking full advantage of the octopus' breathtaking true-life mobility and camouflage capabilities).
On a scale of Cars 2 to Toy Story 3, Finding Dory is about on par with Monsters University - successfully delivering more of characters that audiences love, while also not quite reaching the level of its predecessor. Like some other Pixar titles before it, high expectations take their toll, but ultimately it is a fun bit of summer entertainment.