This is a review/recap of one of the most disabled-friendly films ever, by a father of a special-needs child.
Ever notice that TV shows get recapped but movies get reviewed? Two different animals. Sometimes I think: I’d like to see a movie get the more granular treatment of a recap, especially a movie that could never be a TV show, a movie that reminds us why we go to movies. What would such a recap look like? Well…
Pixar built its rather impenetrable brand on the basis of outstanding original stories – unlike Disney, which until very recently insisted on only literary adaptations. Now, Pixar has become a “sequel manufactory” (Mark Harris) but still tries to keep its glow of originality. The thing is, the originality was always sorta compromised by Pixar proudly boasted of adhering to Robert McKee’s advice for screenplay writing. One effect of this is that the stakes start high and stay high, with a major “inciting incident” soon after we meet the characters. One reason Toy Story is so beloved is that its inciting incident, Buzz’s arrival, is relatively benign; it doesn’t scare little kids like my 4-year-old in the way of Nemo’s mom’s death in Finding Nemo.
The buzz on Finding Dory is that it’s good, but no Finding Nemo. Fair enough. Yet as a parent of a pretty severely handicapped child, I was with Finding Dory from the moment we hit the ocean. The stakes are precipitously high at the outset, as we see Dory’s parents, Jenny and Charlie, trying to teach Dory all the things she’ll need to know. They teach her how to say she has “short-term memory loss.” The quick editing in these opening scenes comes to represent the feeling that they’ll never quite be able to tell her enough, and that’s a feeling I know all too well. Two scenes in and I could already feel a blue-tang-fish lump in my throat: how will my special-needs child survive without me?
You could make the case that the parents did parent her enough; she survived the first film, right? If you know the first film (duh), you could ask why this new film didn’t show her learning to read. If you know the second film (you’re reading this without that?), you could object that its opening scenes are awfully coy about where the three of them are. But I didn’t think about any of that. The voice of young-girl Dory was so innocent and sweet. They had me hook line and sinker.
Dory gets lost. She asks other fish for help finding her parents. She finds a couple of helpful trout. They’re about to help her when they lose her in the seaweed. The montage of her asking various fish for help plays a little like Pixar trying to include all the great-looking sea species that were left out of Nemo. Dory grows up into Ellen DeGeneres’ voice, the joy of which helps counteract our despair that Dory’s questions to stranger-fish have become a lot less specific. She has forgotten to ask about her parents or home. She just knows she needs help. And then she runs into Marlin, who is Nemo’s dad, and they chase a boat, and then we cut to “one year later.”
Nemo, you’ll recall, has a small right fin, a “lucky fin.” The key to Finding Nemo was his father, Marlin, saying “you think you can do these things but you can’t.” Marlin needed to understand his son has having not only disability, but ability. You might think that the sequel would veer away from that theme. Actually, it swims headfirst into it.
One could object that Dory’s memory problems are all-too-tailored to the plot. One could object that Dory conveniently forgets some things five seconds after hearing them, other times easily remembers things in that time frame. If you tell me all that, you’re barking up the wrong plankton. I’m a Memento (2000) freak. I cry every time I watch 50 First Dates (2003). So forget it. I mean…uh…
Dory wakes up with Nemo and Marlin. She knows them, but she keeps forgetting not to swim into their electric-charged anenome. Marlin is frustrated at this, but not more frustrated than his usual demeanor. They escort Nemo to school. Because they’re fish and not humans, there’s not even a whiff of sexual tension between Marlin and Dory. When Marlin tells Dory, uh, the teacher doesn’t want you there today because you get lost and it’s hard to keep up…Dory says oh the teacher needs a helper! She joins that familiar stingray, repeating everything he says as though the stingray had been speaking in a whisper. There IS a whiff of Memento here; how often does this happen? But it’s a tasteful whiff, forgotten as Dory and Nemo’s classmates engage with the day’s adventure. The movie is so confident, it can relegate the teacher’s lecture about instinct to a low volume (for us) – ironically, Dory doesn’t “amplify” this lecture because she’s busy thinking about a flashback one of the students just prompted.
Dory remembers her parents, and rushes through the waving reeds as she wants to find them. (The movie has a few of these shots, and they seem almost inspired by the stargate sequence in 2001.) Dory knocks herself out, and talks in her brief sleep about “the jewel of Morro Bay”; Nemo hears her. Upon waking, she knows she remembered something important but she can’t remember what it is. Too conveniently, Marlin shows up. What does a working fish do all day, anyway? Marlin and Nemo take Dory aside from the school (not a lot of boundary issues with this school), to a familiar reef. Nemo reminds her of what she said while asleep. Now Dory knows what they have to do – cross the ocean and find her parents. “I can’t do it alone, I’ll forget,” she says, and my disabled-parent heart breaks. Marlin says they’ve had enough of ocean travels in one lifetime, and bad things happen when they leave that reef. Nemo (voiced by some kid who sounds exactly like the kid in the other movie) believes in Dory. Thus we have our tensions all set. They realize they don’t even know how to get across the ocean, but Marlin reluctantly admits, “I know a guy.”
Smash cut to Crush! No need for your Crush-loving chitlins to wait 90 minutes this time! How the heck do turtles get from near-Australia to California? Better not to ask silly questions like these. Marlin gets sick, sort of. (The movie misses the opportunity to use “hurl” in surfer-speak, and the opportunity to have the kid reprise “we’re going to have a great jump today!”) Turns out these turtles could be slightly better chaperones, as in actually seeing their guests to the door. Instead, in the space between drop-off and destination, Dory, Nemo and Marlin run into…a giant squid! Mostly this is a gratuitous chase scene and cheap thrills. You could argue, though, that it sets up the ending, not just because we get a sense of what a panicked chase would look like, but also because we get another clue about how Dory got lost in the first place.
One other thing: on the escape, Dory gets a soda-six-pack-ring curled around her; Nemo gets slightly bonked; Marlin tends to him afterward. (I find it funny when the fish in these films are hugging or comforting each other while not actually touching.) Marlin is a bit peeved at Dory’s role in endangering them, and as Dory tries to be helpful Marlin barks at her, “Just go over there and forget, it’s what you do best anyway.” Dory swims away, gets a little lost, hears Sigourney Weaver identify herself and “the jewel of Morro Bay.” Dory swims to Weaver, arrives on the surface, and sees the very Monterey Bay Aquarium-like museum. Marlin and Nemo actually almost catch up to Dory – in time to see humans pick her out of the water because of the soda-six-pack-ring. They can’t catch her; Marlin can only catch hell from his kid, and does, about Marlin telling off Dory. It’s Marlin’s fault.
Heresy alert: I like Finding Nemo better than any of the Toy Story films. Because we’re in the ocean, everything’s calming. I never quite get over the magic that the undersea creatures can speak amongst themselves as though sound traveling through water is no big whoop. It’s amazing that the ocean remained basically uncharted waters for fiction films for all of cinema’s first century, unless we’re counting movies where the characters would really rather be on the surface/land, like The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964) and The Little Mermaid (1989). With Finding Nemo, despite the funny dentist-office scenes, the heart of the film is the ocean, and the goal is the nicest part (according to Marlin, anyway) of that same ocean.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Finding Dory is that most of it takes place in an aquarium. I get the reasons, and the final goal didn’t really change, but it makes the sequel just a little less magical than the original. On the other hand, Ellen DeGeneres is letter-perfect, and it’s nice to have slightly more of her. Albert Brooks, by contrast, is almost an after-thought, and I wonder if the 13-year gap related to the time it took to convince him to do it. (And have his name moved to second in the credits.) Oh come on, Albert, take the $5 million for 5 days of work in your sweatsuit in a cushy studio, for Neptune’s sake.
Dory lands in the quarantine room, where she’s tagged and put in a TV-sized tank. A cat poster saying “Hang in there!” – perhaps a nod to The Lego Movie – cleverly morphs into a camouflaged octopus named Hank, who tries to swindle Dory out of her tag. He is bored of Morro Bay, and the tag will get him on the next truck to Cleveland. (Next Truck to Cleveland would have actually been a more plot-appropriate title than Finding Dory.) Last summer’s Pixar offering eventually threw Minnesota under the bus, this summer’s film rocks Cleveland. Northern California chauvinism is in full effect.
I often can’t name actors doing cartoon voices while I’m watching the film, but Ed O’Neill’s crusty cynic Hank leapt off the screen. He’s as well-cast as Brooks and DeGeneres originally were, and for similar reasons: less of an A-list star, more of being very right for the part. In two movies so far, Dory’s main job has been to awaken a bitter, burnt-out male to life’s possibilites. On one level, we might say Dory is being misused. On another level, again as a parent of a special-needs child, I have to give the movies credit for not trying to change Dory, as McKee-like imperatives would have. Quality fiction films about the disabled don’t pretend it’s easy to change one’s disability.
The thing is, Hank figures out Dory’s disability in a few minutes, and so it stretches plausibility that he would agree to help her find her parents in exchange for her tag. Why not just wait for her to forget, and absent-mindedly offer him the tag again? But Hank’s no John G. in Memento, and thus we might say we already see his heart of gold – well, three of them, because as Hank eventually learns from Dory, octopi have three hearts. By way of explaining that he doesn’t like to be touched by humans, Hank informs Dory that he has seven tentacles, and Dory merrily calls him a septopus. So does the movie further foreground disability, not to mention sensitivity to grabby humans.
Hank puts Dory in a coffeepot, which is in and of itself as magical as Pixar’s most legendary moments of mismatch-osity. When a human almost sees them, Hank turns the coffeepot into a plant-pot with his camouflaged legs sticking out. You might think this would hurt Dory, but much like my kid, she doesn’t get too bummed at physical bumps and bonks. Instead Dory pops up and peruses a map of the aquarium/Marine Life Institute, with its many attractions, and says “How’s anyone supposed to see this place in one day?” I look forward to that short audio-loop existing somewhere in or near the Finding Nemo ride at Disneyland. Dory remembers her parents being in the Ocean Life exhibit.
Hank and Dory are on their way, but have to scramble to keep hidden from humans. Dory spies a bucket that says “Destiny,” and she jumps in it, much to Hank’s chagrin. Dory sees all the vertical feeder fish and says “oh good idea, let’s play dead.” Then she marvels at their ability to not blink. (Never mind that in real life fish don’t blink; it’s a great gag.) A human takes the bucket out of the food area as Hank, in pursuit, goes splat into the door’s window. Octopi – heck, even septupi – are funny!
Dory winds up in a mammoth tank, fed to a whale shark named Destiny. At first this seems calamitous, but the whale shark is near-sighted, and it turns out Dory can speak to her anyway. In fact, Destiny and Dory are old pals – pipe pals, as they used to speak through the aquarium’s pipes. Destiny introduces Dory to a beluga whale next door named Bailey, who is afraid to use his biological sonar skills. Hank turns up (we don’t know how, but we don’t question it), demanding the tag. Dory just wants to get to her parents. Pixar lead characters always hue very close to motivation, this is a Robert McKee trademark. Destiny explains that Dory can get to them through the pipes, and she tells her something like “two lefts and a right,” and Dory is afraid she won’t make it.
Let’s pause here for a moment: Destiny is near-sighted and Bailey believes his sonar is broken. Neither aspect is really crucial to the narrative. So of the six lead members of the Dory cast – the ones on all the merchandise – five of them are ostensibly differently abled: Dory, Hank, Destiny, Bailey, and Nemo. Ranging from intellectual to physical disability, it’s hard to think of another cartoon with this kind of cast since Rudolph’s island of misfit toys back in 1964. Finding Dory is almost like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but with a lot more love and hope.
Dory goes the safer way out of the tank; she and Hank find an unused stroller and make their way to the World Life exhibit in a rather preposterous fashion. The wackiness is almost justified when Hank bangs his stroller into a toddler hard enough to make her drop her popcorn. It’s nice that there’s a scene in the movie that might really throw off the helicopter parents in the audience.
Meanwhile Marlin and Nemo are swimming on the outskirts of the ocean-adjacent aquarium, desperate to get to their friend. They meet a couple of seals (sea lions? I’m in my 40s and still don’t know) on a rock, who helpfully explain that Marlin and Nemo need to get to quarantine, and they have a friend who might help. I didn’t know as I was watching that the seals are played by Idris Elba and Dominic West, a fun fact for viewers of The Wire, a group that hopefully includes zero of the young children watching Finding Dory. Their funniest part is when they bark off an unwelcome third seal (Gerald), barking “Off! Off! Off!” as though that’s what all seals have been saying all this time.
The seals hook up Marlin and Nemo with a loon, Becky, with creepily large red-eyes with black middles. I might not describe Becky’s eye if it weren’t for the several times the movie goes into Becky’s point-of-view, as Marlin tries to bond with the bird to tell it where to go. As you might guess, Marlin isn’t terrific at this, and it’s his fault that Becky doesn’t get them to quarantine. Becky carries Marlin and Nemo in a bucket above the outdoor grounds of the aquarium (which are actually nicer than those of the Monterey Bay Aquarium; they look more like Jurassic World before shit went crazy), until she gets distracted by that popcorn that Hank overturned. Marlin doesn’t trust Becky to come back to the bucket, so he and Nemo escape…badly. After more airlift than you’d guess was possible from a couple of clownfish, Marlin and Nemo land in a fishtank not utterly unlike the one from the dentist office in Finding Nemo. They watch and sigh as Becky takes the bucket safely to the quarantine building. A toy fish bumps into Marlin. Can fish really jump as confidently as Nemo, Marlin, and Dory in the middle section of this movie? Practically over the middle section of this movie? Again, best not to ask too many questions.
Hank and Dory’s stroller falls down a staircase, and they’re both catapulted into a hands-on kind of extended water table. Dory gets lost amongst the coral and large human hands, and yelling “Hank!” she eventually finds him. Hank makes clear as ink his monstrous aversion to being touched. That is, Hank squirts murky ink at the kids who try to touch him, which clears out the water table. At this point I wondered if there was ever a draft of this script that gave a human a little more to do, perhaps more scenes for that guy who saw Hank as a plant-in-a-coffee-pot. Might have been funny to have one hapless guy viewing all these shenanigans from afar – for example, Dory talking to whales – and then circling around the exhibit just in time to…not catch them. He’d be the familiar trope of the one true believer telling his skeptical colleagues about these human-like fish, and then he almost catches them, and heck, maybe he even does catch some fish at the end of Act 2 (McKee readers know what I mean), but then he stands agape as…well, as the movie’s Act 3 happens. Just wondering. I can live without the classic trope, but it would have made for at least 15 more big laughs.
Marlin and Nemo, now safely ensconced in the B-plot of the sequel to their own movie (imagine if Leia had taken over Empire Strikes Back while Luke and Han…you know, that’s not a bad idea), fail to get Becky’s attention. Nemo chides his Dad with “What would Dory do?” until Marlin realizes it’s pretty good advice. They leap out of the fishtank, bob up and down the mini-geysers from one of those whack-a-mole-style pop-up-from-the-floor fountains, and land in some kind of low basin that doesn’t really make any sense for any exhibit. But it does drain somewhere, so…they’re getting further from Dory now?
Hank and Dory’s water-table adventure landed them within sight of the massive Ocean Life exhibit. It’s a glass oil-refinery sized tank that can only be entered from the top, and so Hank shimmies up a pole, clings to an I-beam, and prepares to throw Dory in. She gives him his tag. Dory is like, wow, “my parents are down there somewhere.” He sees a sign that confirms that octopi have three hearts. The movie doesn’t say so, but maybe there are reading lessons for aquatic life at this place. Dory and Hank almost have a sentimental goodbye. And she’s deposited.
Dory’s initial foray into the Ocean Life exhibit is a sped-up version of the film’s first five minutes; groups (schools) of fish swim by her, ignoring her, while she asks about her parents. She gets bummed, and then she descends to the bottom of the tank, where she sees familiar-looking shells in the sand. They lead her to a sorta-protected area that she recognizes as home. She sees a nearby heavy water flow that sets off alarm bells. She has a little conversation with Destiny and Bailey, her pipe-pals. She realizes that she fell into the water flow and got lost. Another fish tells her that her parents got tired of waiting and are gone. She’s bummed.
She learns that she invented the song “just keep swimming” for herself. A fish tells Dory that her parents would be looking for her in quarantine. Two fish tell her how to get there through the pipes. Dory knows she can’t remember directions. Then she remembers her pipe pals. She asks Destiny and Bailey for help. Bailey summons all his beluga courage and activates his sonar, which somehow gives him a GPS that will help lead Dory to quarantine. (Right.) Dory summons all her little blue-tang-fish courage and jumps in the water flow. At first, it goes well. But then, she gets lost and bummed again.
Now, Bailey senses that someone is coming down one of the pipes…and to us, it looks like a hostile something at least twice the size of Dory. This is not the world’s greatest misdirect, because once the massive fish is revealed, it’s Nemo and Marlin – less than half the size of the mystery blob. Still, great to see the friends reunited. And it’s character time. Marlin owes Dory an apology, and he gives it. Not just for that day, but for never believing in her. Marlin explains that Nemo had saved them by saying “What would Dory do?” Dory says okay, now let’s go find my parents. Bailey and Destiny help Dory through the pipes and into quarantine. The whole movie is gorgeous, but I found these pipes duller than they needed to be. Tint control, fix that for the DVD, will you?
Our three friends arrive in quarantine. Dory sees Hank, and Hank says hi, but he has to maintain his camouflage to be sure he escapes. Dory and Marlin and Nemo hop through an obstacle course of tanks and buckets and sinks to arrive in the tank of blue-tang-fish. Dory says “Mom?” “Dad?” Marlin, looking at the 30 or so blue fish, says “Oh, just pick two!” (That one was for parents who have shopped for fish with kids.) Finally one of them hits Dory with the bad news that her parents left quarantine a long time ago. They went looking for Dory in the ocean. Dory has to get to the ocean, and Nemo fans know that all drains lead there. However, the humans are loading the tanks, and in another cartoon mix-up that doesn’t make a lot of sense as I type it, Nemo and Marlin stay stuck in the Cleveland-bound tank with the blue-tang-fish even as Dory goes down a drain.
Now we’re finally at the true end of Act 2. Dory is stuck in the ocean seaweed outside the aquarium. Nothing to do. Nobody wants to help her. And she’s already showing signs that she’s going to forget again. She doesn’t want to forget. Why in hell is this fish story so poignant? Sure, I’m a special-needs parent, but I think Ellen knocks this character out of the park. She’s such a good person, for a fish. It also helps that we don’t see Ellen in a hundred other movies, so her voice really has the power to sound…unheard.
Then, at the bottom of the ocean, where dreams go to die…Dory sees the shells. A trail of them. Just like her parents had left for her back in the Ocean Life tank. She follows them to a rusted-over pipe opening. Nothing, no one there. She sees the shells stretching back into the gloom. Should she follow them? And then, two blue-tang fish show up bearing shells. The moment holds. In my theater, everyone held their breath (duh, it’s underwater). Then Dory says, “Hello, my name is…” “DORY!” her parents say and swim hard to wrap themselves around Dory. I had something in my eye. Something a little like the Monterey Bay.
Unrealistically – though that adverb is about to lose any meaning it ever had – Dory remembers that Nemo and Marlin are stuck in a tank on a truck bound for Cleveland. Dory explains to mom and dad that they’re family and we can’t leave family. Her parents are like WHAT but they’re not as bad as Marlin. Even Dory is starting to believe in “What would Dory do?” The reunited mom, dad, and daughter swim up to the surface, where Dory attempts to contact Destiny and Bailey. Yep, no problem, but the truck is well on its way. The two seals suggest that they try to catch it, perhaps with a little help from Becky the loon. However, the truck is leaving Bailey’s sonar range. Destiny and Bailey have to bust out of their tanks, which are handily located right on the ocean. A little character work, a little love, a little Free Willy ripoff, and they’re in the ocean.
This is getting harder to recap because…well, did you catch how I said the movie was about to get more unrealistic? With almost no prompting, our fish and whales persuade a bunch of otters to put their lives in mortal danger on a seaside road connector bridge. Cars stop at the cuteness, and the truck bound for Cleveland screeches to a halt. With Becky’s help, Dory gets aboard. (When did Dory ever remember this much?) Dory hustles Marlin and Nemo off the truck and into the ocean. But then Dory is determined to go back for Hank, and the truck starts, and locks. Dory gives Hank this big speech about how he should really be with her family from now on. It’s the most Dory has ever said at once. And I let it slide on brain-damage verisimilitude, because it was beautiful. Even Hank has to say “Okay.”
Slight problem is that they’re on their way to Cleveland, and getting further from their friend animals near the bridge. No way out, except that for Dory, there’s always a way – this wisdom nugget comes off as empowerment, not plot absurdity. Hank and Dory find a hatch in the roof. Next thing you know Hank goes splat on the windshield, the drivers get out and…Hank starts driving the truck. No, it makes absolutely no sense when you’re watching it either. Just go with it.
Dory is Hank’s eyes, but I still don’t see him working the pedals and the steering wheel, sorry. They get to a roundabout, which is an awfully lucky break. Little shout out to Berkeley and the Pixar environs with a couple of exit signs that say Gilman and Ashby. (By the way, the truck is driving south along a road in coastal California bound for Cleveland? Whatever.) Our heroes very luckily head back the other way, though now they’re going the wrong way on a highway, probably killing people, but definitely don’t think about that kids!
Back under the bridge, Marlin and Nemo are getting to know Dory’s parents and Destiny and Bailey, and nobody is thanking the otters for almost getting killed, and then…the truck appears in the air, slow-motion falling off of a cliff into the ocean, to the sound of Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World.” Very very serendipitously, the back of the truck’s cab unlatches in midair, so all of the fish in all of the tanks can land in the ocean. I like a nutty ending, but Jimmy Carter’s farm wasn’t this nutty.
Epilogue back at the reef. Dory, her parents, Marlin, Nemo, Destiny, Bailey, and Hank all swam across the Pacific Ocean somehow. They’re chilling near Nemo’s school. Marlin and Dory share a sentimental look from the reef view where their big adventures have begun. They’re sort of like Rocky and Adonis at the end of Creed, looking over Philadelphia. I smelled a setup for a sequel. Finding Marlin? Really?
So one thing we’ve learned is that recaps of movies take too long. I’m sure you’ve got that lesson loud and clear.
Another thing is that I was joking about Next Truck to Cleveland. Finding Dory is a sneaky-great title because it underlines that it’s about Dory finding herself, and suggests that’s actually possible for someone with her short-term memory problems. Let me elaborate on what I said about not changing a chronically handicapped person. You don’t want disability fiction to end like The Miracle Worker (Helen Keller’s biopic is not exactly fiction), because it leads to false hopes and fairytale expectations. However, strong writers can split the difference and show a disabled person change their circumstances, if not their own nature. I think 50 First Dates kinda gets there, and Finding Dory even more so. It stops short of saying that she needs to change, mostly because everyone in the movie loves her so much. Rarely do you feel that kind of sincere love throughout any movie, much less a summer blockbuster. And it has become the seventh highest-grossing movie of all time in North America. And that means something special to me and all the other people out there driving with handicapped stickers.
Thank you Pixar. Just keep swimming.