Just keep swimming. Dory’s constant, reassuring mantra of optimism played a key role in soothing Marlin as he searched for his lost son thirteen years ago in Finding Nemo. It also served as a guiding principle for kids everywhere, perseverance against life’s obstacles–even if the obstacle is themselves. It’s a simple–but effective–message, which might explain its lasting appeal through the years.
Finding Dory is complicated. As a film, it comes in the middle of a wave of sequels that have raised questions about the quality and consistency of Pixar’s work. And while the Toy Story sequels and Monsters University sought to bring old characters into new scenarios, Finding Dory is almost an exact retread of past events. Dory is also an interesting character to establish an origin story with. Part of her charm was her simplicity, a catchy slogan and a lovable quirk–her short-term memory. She was the ideal sidekick.
Disney and Pixar’s decision to revisit the ocean was fueled by easy nostalgia money, and unfortunately, these elements pattern the structure of Finding Dory. An encounter with a scary ocean creature, an escape from humanity, and being lost in the big, blue sea, it’s hard not to get a sense of deja vu. It also doesn’t help that these revisitations often fail to meet the originality or charm that Finding Nemo established. Although Hank does hold a slight edge over Gill. Returning to old scenarios for nostalgia sake cheapens the experience when the film can’t justify its actions.
Most justifications in Finding Dory are tied to a series of flashbacks that Dory has about her family. It’s a brilliant example of how Pixar works their tear-jerking magic with the impossibly adorable baby Dory. I have no qualms about engineering the cutest fish possible, but trotting out these flashbacks every few minutes function as emotional low blows. As with the nostalgia, a cute baby fish is cunningly effective, but they can only go so far in masking the underlying tale that lacks originality and suffers from being overly complicated.
Dory as a complex story flounders, but Dory as a nuanced character shines. Expanding Dory’s short-term quirk into a focal point creates a meaningful theme on disabilities. Of course, some of these threads were present in Finding Nemo with Nemo’s smaller right fin, but Finding Dory digs into how these complicated situations affect the disabled–or even people and fish that think and act differently as the film is apt to generalize. It’s here we see Marlin at his meanest and Dory at her most vulnerable. Hopelessness, frustration and anger are familiar words in a society and culture that’s constructed with able-bodies in mind–and that’s true in and out of the sea. But Finding Dory is also quick to remind that happiness, kinship and success are part of the language too, and it’s a matter of open-mindedness and accommodation, rather than pity and othering.
Dory’s many relationships and interactions, the trust tug-of-war with Marlin and Nemo, the utilitarian-turned-genuine friendship with Hank, and the entrenched closeness with her parents and childhood friends, all offer glimpses at how Dory sees and feels–and by extension–how people with disabilities might see and feel. This is where Pixar excels. These web of interactions are complex and nuanced; they’re universal, but also distinct.
Just keep swimming. The phrase remains ever endearing. It may feel worn at times, but it’s more than just a catchy quirk. It’s deceptively simple. There’s always more to it, and as the film delves into the mind of Dory to find a world as vast and colorful as the ocean, Finding Dory proves a fitting sequel, and even with its problems, another successful hit for Pixar.