2003's Finding Nemo was the first Pixar film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature — an award that didn't exist in 1995 when Toy Story announced the coming of the animation giant. Pixar went on to win eight of the 15 total Animated Feature awards given so far, with Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton repeating in 2008 with WALL-E, which remains the studio's pinnacle.
Despite a failed push into live-action science fantasy with John Carter, Stanton has remained a stalwart at Pixar, working in some capacity on every picture, even after it was absorbed by Disney and Toy Story director John Lasseter was promoted to head of the studio's animation unit. Pixar is notoriously collaborative, but there's no denying that Stanton is responsible for a big chunk of the Pixar aesthetic. Which is why the lackluster Finding Dory is so disappointing.
Let me stipulate here that Finding Dory is not a bad movie. Much thought has gone into this film. The little Pacific regal blue tang (fish fans are sticklers for specifics), voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, stole the show in Finding Nemo, so the choice to put her at the center of the sequel was obvious. Stanton opens in flashback, when Dory is but a mere blue pip with two giant eyes. Dory's dad, Charlie (Eugene Levy), and mom, Jenny (Diane Keaton), are trying to help their little girl learn the skills to deal with her lack of short-term memory. Then we flash forward to the present, where a grown-up Dory is hanging out on the Great Barrier Reef with her clownfish buddies Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence, replacing the original Nemo, the now-grown-up Alexander Gould) when she begins to have visions about her parents. Dory, feeling deprived of even a memory of her family, decides to try to find them. But it's a tall order, since she has only the scant bits of information she can dredge out of her easily distracted head. So she persuades Nemo and Marlin to accompany her and keep her focused on her quest. They hitch a ride with some surfer turtles on the California current and head to the Jewel of Morro Bay, which turns out to be a marine biology institute devoted to rehabbing injured wildlife and releasing them back into the sea. The three fish put their scant brain power together to figure out that Dory's parents are probably in a tank somewhere in the huge aquarium compound, and, with the help of a couple of cockney-accented sea lions (Idris Elba and Dominic West), they plot an aquatic break-in.
Dory as amnesiac protagonist suggests some intriguing possibilities, something like Christopher Nolan's Memento under the sea. The first two acts of Finding Dory provide some impressive individual set pieces, such as a stingray migration that echoes a classic Disney animation moment, a spectacular chase scene with a bioluminescent squid, and a cameo by Sigourney Weaver playing herself. But where the usual Pixar model is tight and economical, Stanton's narrative meanders clumsily until the third act kicks in. When Dory hits the "Descent Into the Underworld" part of her Hero's Journey, the film suddenly clicks into focus. Stanton and his animators pull back to reveal Dory as a tiny blue dot in a vast dark ocean, and, combined with the greatest voice performance of DeGeneres' career, they show the old Pixar tearjerker machine is still as potent as ever.
The burst of energy is short-lived, however, and even an homage to the wrong-way car chase from To Live and Die in L.A., recreated with a surly octopus (Ed O'Neill, in a terrific vocal performance) behind the wheel, can't pull Dory out of the ditch.
But then, what do I know? This $200 million lollipop almost paid for its production in three days of release, with the biggest animated movie opening of all time. The kids in the audience I saw it with were quiet and attentive, and they all seemed to really enjoy themselves—although I remember the response to last year's Inside Out being much more enthusiastic. The Pixar animation masters have created another visual feast, with images and effects not even contemplated in 2003. Had Finding Dory come from any other group of artists, perhaps I would have judged it a success. But Pixar I hold to a higher standard.