Finding Nemo (2003) is my childhood: a perfect 5 star film presenting a wonderful and carefully researched view of underwater life and a heartwarming yet comedic story, with a beautiful soundtrack by Thomas Newman. Nemo’s strength was in our perspective from events, following Nemo through his first day of school; every parent and every child in the audience found ways to relate to this.
I was 6 years old when I watched Finding Nemo for the first time. My entire life has happened since then – friendships, relationships, favourite books, teenage hormones and drunken university all-nighters. In the years since, Nemo’s voice actor, Alexander Gould, has grown up to become INCREDIBLY FUCKING HOT.
Dory brings us into the same world of 13 years ago: the opening teases us with a prequel, with Dory as a far too adorable baby, or a side-story from Dory’s perspective, a la The Lion King 3 (2004), but it ultimately settles on being a sequel. So we end up in the world of 2004, complete with corded telephones and not a cellphone in sight.
I’m 7 years old. I’m just starting my final year of first school. I don’t know what Doctor Who is. Apparently I did well on my SATs. I’m living on a diet of VHS tapes of Pixar films and DVDs of The Iron Giant (1999) and Channel 4 broadcasts of The Simpsons.
Dory places itself a year after the events of the original film, but its problem is its reliance on the familiar. Unlike Toy Story 3 (2010), we’ve not grown up with these (now adult) characters: Dory died a long time ago, time has stopped, and it’s a direct-to-video sequel. The film introduces us to original concepts, yet its reliance on what came before – Nemo and Marvin, clinging onto Dory at every opportunity, and the presence of turtles and Mr. Ray, in addition to an opening scene mirroring the original – feel like a safety net it never truly lets go of.
Inside Out (2015) presented us with a strong female presence (there’s even a Women of Pixar featurette on the Blu-ray), yet despite having Ellen DeGeneres as the lead, Dory relies a little too heavily on its male characters. Hopefully there’s a little girl out there who finds Dory’s story an inspiring one. But I’d have liked to see more of Dory’s friendship with Destiny, giving her more of an adventure of her own.
But despite the film doesn’t treat its audience as 7 year olds. Nemo‘s story was one of early childhood, but Dory’s story feels like one of early adulthood. Dory’s life is one of tragedy – separated from her parents at an early age, now returning home to one’s parents after many years apart. In the real world, we’d see Dory’s stories of alcohol addiction and abusive partners, trying to bring up kids in a home far away from home. It becomes about coping with mortality and the loss of one’s parents. It reaches almost Toy Story 3 levels of sadness; heck, it could have reached The Land Before Time (1988) levels – yet I never quite was reduced to tears.
Dory‘s world is different to Nemo: where Jaws (1975) spent its sequels shifting from the open ocean to the Sea Life Center, Dory does the same here. Dory doesn’t really find time to critique or bring up an ethical debate around aquariums: the closing act (the most fun the film has), releases the fish back into the wild, set to What a Wonderful World, whilst the aquarium is distinctly humanitarian. The aquarium has Sigourney Weaver’s seal of approval, relying on a policy of care as though it were a hospital, before releasing the fish back into the ocean. We never get to know how painful it is for Destiny to bang herself against the glass, thinking it to be the ocean. But this is not Free Willy (1993).
Tanks become expansive, a stand-in for the real ocean. But we never get the sense of the aquarium as either an expansive or an enclosed space, unable to create much of a world. We never get the sight of Cleveland. Ultimately, it never stands to give us the same sense of world building, or the same sense of a charming, heartwarming story.