“Finding Dory” has a problem. It’s called “Finding Nemo”. When your origin story is the focus of misty childhood sentiment for millions, how do you solve a problem like a sequel? You may as well set out to write a song called “Revenge of the Son of ‘Yesterday’”.
But write it they have, and good for them—“Finding Dory” is terrific, a masterful retread of the original movie’s blood-simple stakes (a missing fish must reunite with their family) with an added twist (the fish in question cannot remember anything for more than about thirteen seconds). It would be easy to play Dory’s memory problem off for laughs, but Pixar never goes for a laugh when it’s possible to get a cry, as the still-traumatized audience of “Inside Out” can attest. (Survivor’s meetings can be found weekly in church basements across America.) Dory’s amnesia isn’t just flightiness, it’s a terrifying void that swallows friendships and family members whole, leaving Dory stranded in a literal ocean of loneliness. Her awareness of her illness only adds a cruel dimension to her isolation: Dory remembers just enough to know that she has forgotten something important. Adults watching this movie who have witnessed Alzheimer’s will gulp in recognition. And in short order, we get a tour of all the hallmarks of mental illness: coping strategies, frightened families, shame, stress, and guilt. Welcome to Pixar. By the second act, your tear ducts will be starting to throb: when comic relief appears in the form of two fat sea lions, it feels like the appearance of a life vest on the Titanic. An inventive octopus and slightly tatty-looking loon are charming; less effective additions include two whale characters, one nearsighted and one who has either lost his echolocation, or his confidence in his echolocation—the movie’s unclear on his damage, and the attempt to portray everyone as “a little bit broken” feels disingenuous and reductive, especially because the nearsighted whale’s biggest problem is an occasional bump on the nose, while Dory’s amnesia is an ongoing disaster that dogs her life and will never be fixed. But it can be lived with, and lived around, and Dory’s journey ends on a note of cautious optimism: two fish together, looking out into the endless blue void. If you need a moment to collect yourself as the credits roll, no one will blame you—and in fact, a tiny comic scene awaits you after the credits to help you recover your dignity. Pixar is only getting stronger. God help us if Marlin ever goes missing.