Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Hello, I'm Sigourney Weaver


Pixar's back!  Yay?  Yes!  Yay!

Directed by Andrew Stanton and Angus McClane
Written by Victoria Strouse, Bob Peterson, Angus McClane, and Andrew Stanton
With Ellen DeGeneres (Dory), Albert Brooks (Marlin), Hayden Rolence (Nemo), Ed O'Neil (Hank), Kaitlin Olson (Destiny), Ty Burrell (Bailey), Idris Elba (Fluke), Dominic West (Rudder), Diane Keaton (Jenny), and Eugene Levy (Charlie)

Spoiler alert: somewhere between moderate and high

Oh, thank God—If Pixar had released two bad movies in a row, I'd have been despondent.  But even with the exercise in diminishing expectations wrought by Pixar with its last film, The Good Dinosaur, Finding Dory is still one very nice surprise.  For one thing, it's a sequel to a movie I liked, but never loved.  Beyond that, it's crassly transparent in its intentions as a sequel—it exists solely because Finding Nemo made a lot of money.  Finally, every sign pointed to Dory as a labor of necessity rather than love for its director and prime mover, Andrew Stanton (who oversaw the film alongside co-director Angus McClane).  Stanton, you'll recall, gave the world both Nemo and WALL-E.  And thus, having reached the pinnacle of his profession, he decided to don a pair of wax wings and fly directly at the sun—which is as good a metaphor as any for the legendary failure of Stanton's live-action John Carter, the film that cost a quarter of a billion of Disney's dollars, returned a substantial but disappointing fraction of that, and left Stanton languishing in director's jail for years and years, until he at last agreed to return to cartoon servitude at (Disney) Pixar.  (And all this in spite of the fact that John Carter was, frankly, magnificent.  I haven't forgotten how much I hate almost all of you, you know.)

Well, of Stanton's four feature films, Dory fits comfortably into position as his third best (though there's certainly room to argue whether John Carter or WALL-E is the best); nevertheless, it's in the same league, and whether or not Pixar greenlit it for mercenary reasons, and whether or not Stanton helmed it mainly in order to rehabilitate the ruin he once called a career, these don't impact the film itself, for Dory appears to be made with as much passion as anything Pixar ever released.  Happily, it mostly follows the pattern of Pixar's other recent franchise extension, that extraordinary prequel, Monsters University: it's an unwanted follow-up to a decade-old movie that, once you push past your natural suspicion, reveals itself to be better than the original.

...Or, maybe, that's just me.  The curse of Nemo, unfortunately, is that while I know good and well I liked it, I more easily recall the parts that annoyed me.  The irony is that Dory herself was one of those annoying elements.  But the sequel puts the comic relief sidekick front and center, while recasting her as the tragically-disabled heroine of the piece, and it turns out that this fixes every problem with Dory I ever had.

So: Finding Dory is the non-experimental, piscine Memento for children.  Dory, of course, is a blue tang afflicted with short term memory loss, which has rendered her almost (but not quite) completely dysfunctional.  You'll presumably remember all this—but if you don't, Finding Dory says "fuck all of you right in your fucking faces, every last one of you stupid children who weren't even born yet."  In any event, while poor Dory might have served as an admirably loyal companion to Marlin back in Finding Nemo, as he searched the Pacific Ocean for his son, she was almost as much an obstacle as she was an ally.

But this film takes us back a lot further than that, to when Dory was just a pair of eyes with fins attached.  When Dory was small, she had a mother and a father, and they doted upon her and took care of her as best they could; but one day, thanks to her frequent lapses, she got lost.  She spent years upon years looking for them, never getting very far.  And, eventually, she couldn't even quite remember what she was searching for in the first place.

This is the first part of the movie where you cry.  There will be approximately twenty more.

Now, however—largely due to the requirement that her movie have a story, but we can spot Stanton and his screenwriters this contrivance—Dory has experienced a flash of ancient memory, and recalled that she had parents, and also that she needs to find them.  So, despite Marlin's well-grounded objections to Dory attempting to do, frankly, anything, let alone leaving the reef for parts unknown, she sets out upon her quest, and Marlin and Nemo follow, hoping to save her from herself.  Ultimately, they are separated, and Dory makes her way to the Marine Life Institute (which has been endorsed by a famous actor, so you know they're basically okay guys, and not, say, SeaWorld).  Here she makes the acquaintance of Hank the Octopus (who is awesome), Destiny the Whale Shark (who is so poorly described that, while it's clear enough that the writers do know that whale sharks are sharks, they also don't especially care), and Bailey the Beluga (who suffers from a soft-pedaled impotence metaphor, with his echolocation being weak rather than his enormous cetacean boners—and, also, ECHOLOCATION DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY).  All the while, Dory is remembering more and more, her memories hitting her like bad acid flashbacks, and she realizes that the one who killed her wife was her.  No, wait.  That's still Memento.

One thing that Dory does best is whipsaw back and forth between an insanely maudlin depiction of Dory's loss—and her disability—and the immensely fun crypto-heist plot that kicks in once she gets to the Institute.  But the other thing it does best is, of course, the same thing Nemo did: offer up images of lightly-anthroporphized and inordinately-cute marine life.  L'il Dory is already the single most remarkable creation of ultra-stylized pweciousness in a whole generation: she's graced with the most ridiculous eyes, and they emote with some honestly wondrous eyelid animation, so sharply highlighting her ever-addled mental state—but it's never for a joke, and always in service of making you feel like slitting your wrists right there in the theater, instead of continuing to witness the incredibly painful situations that Dory, herself, can neither completely feel (because she can't remember them for very long) nor remotely process.  But what really takes the character beyond the infinite, and into the pantheon of the all-time best cloying cartoon characters, are the pair of lispy performances that give her a voice, by Sloane Murray and Lucia Geddes, respectively, each playing Dory in different phases of her childhood.  Sure, they don't sound at all like a pair of young Ellen Degenereses—but Christ, they do sound like the platonic ideal of a lost little storybook child, and the old stuff is the old stuff because it works.

Naturally, L'il Dory is just the prime example of the sheer craft that went into this film.  (Adult Dory, of course, is incredibly cute in her own right; further I'm rather certain DeGeneres is better here than she was thirteen years ago—but, then, she gets a lot more to do.  Thing is, I'm pretty sure she's not just more heartfelt here, but funnier, too.  I can only assume that this just means that Dory's a more dynamic character than Marlin and the Stick Up Marlin's Ass—and I'm eager to revist Nemo to see if I like her better now than I did then.)

At any rate, everything looks pretty amazing in this movie.  Obviously, that's the least you could expect from a Pixar movie in general, and a Finding Nemo sequel in particular; but the studio's master animators still deserve a line or two of praise when they pump out some inevitably masterful animation, with exquisite watery shadows everywhere and some really interesting framing from Stanton, who undertakes to depict the existential bleakness of Dory's plight in some very direct and extremely visceral ways.

But, as far as Dory's other interesting visual mechanics go, we're blessed with Hank, whose malleable cephalopod construction and color-changing chromatophore skin dovetail perfectly with the capering of Dory's second and third acts; that's before you even get into Ed O'Neil's appealing performance as an institutionalized prisoner who's trying to spend his whole life in an aquarium, and whose transformation from a hard-nosed, untrustworthy ally into a lifelong friend with three hearts of gold is as unavoidable as it is earned.  Mainly, though, it's just a pure joy to watch Hank scamper around, as octopodes do, using his abilities to evade detection in a whole host of inventive ways.

Very few things go wrong in Dory.  I suppose that there are thoroughgoing conceptual problems, but these are down to the talking animal genre, and there's not the slightest need to go into those.

...Although, given the animals' apparent English literacy, I really don't see why Hank can't just write a heartfelt note to the Institute staff.   (Bet they'd keep him around then!)

The moments where Finding Nemo are directly quoted are merely a little overfamiliar, rather than genuinely obnoxious, and this is better than anybody could have hoped.  In fact, the battle with the giant squid, which has no intention to be anything but the 2016 model of the anglerfish scene from the original, is actually pretty great on its merits; and while the heisty stuff clearly recalls the prison-break conceit of the first, it's different enough that it doesn't ever feel like a retread.  Meanwhile, the interplay between Dory and the whale shark and the beluga seems like it ought to be enervating—it involves some very misjudged "funny" voices—but, somehow, it failed to offend me.  There's only one bit where the movie truly evicts you from its lovely fantasy; and that, you know, is the extended sequence where Dory and Hank have hijacked a child's stroller in order to move about the Institute.  (I'm afraid that when a movie requires you to watch an unattended baby carriage flying around a busy aquarium and no human gives a single damn, then that movie is placing a very unreasonable demand upon your willing suspension of disbelief.)  Finally, there is a solid half hour of this picture where it is abundantly clear that the writers hoped you wouldn't notice that Dory's memory has gotten one hell of a lot better—but this is probably wise, given that any really rigorous application of Dory's premise to Dory's story would likely prevent it from being told altogether.

Instead of any really salient negatives, then, what keeps Dory out of the very top tier of cartoon classics is that when it comes to its fundamental tale, it's kind of, well, wimpy.  Yes, it toys with your emotions with the artfulness of American animation's greatest triumphs, yet it is constitutionally incapable of taking them to their most logical conclusion.  In fact, it feints in the direction of no fewer than three possible solutions to Dory's mystery—and one of them is so horrifyingly cruel, and potentially meaningful, that if it had gone there, we'd probably be talking about the Greatest Pixar Movie of All Time, rather than just One of the Pretty Great Pixar Movies, Such As They've Been Making On a Pretty Regular Basis For 21 Years.  Needless to say, it does not venture into the deep darkness.  It merely plays there for for a while; and then it retreats, well aware that it is a commercial venture, unwilling to test the parents in the audience by breaking their children's fragile hearts, and, worse, forcing them to question whether a parent's love can ever be permanent—or, scarier still, whether it is always unconditional.

I cannot reach into Andrew Stanton and company's minds, and say, for sure, that they made this film for any reasons more profound than making Pixar and Disney money; its retrenchment into overcoming-adversity boilerplate strongly suggests that they didn't.  Yet, boilerplate is rarely executed so expertly as it is here; and whether any human being involved was genuinely passionate about Finding Dory or not, when passion is faked this well, it doesn't matter if they felt anything or not, because the audience will.  And, after all, that's what the movies are all about.

Score:  8/10

Finding Dory is preceded by a neat short, "Piper," which is about as simple as simple could be in terms of its story: it's about a baby sandpiper learning to dig clams out of the surf, which manifests to the piper as a colossal tidal wave of roughly the same proportions as the global flood that closes out 2012.  It is, foremost, an exercise in seeing how animated cinematography can work within the bounds of a photorealistic computer-generated cartoon, and, naturally, it's a pristine formal experience.  Unfortunately, I was being annoyed by the poor woman who came in late to see Finding Dory with her three bored teenagers and a shrill infant child; thus, my experience of the short was undermined, to say the least, while these jerks settled in.  Still, I liked it, and it's an effortlessly sweet little tale of survival in nature, marrying its strikingly realistic avian protagonist (those feathers are intense, man) with a heaping helping of cartoon sentiment (such as this bird's unlikely crustacean friend).  I suppose it's something of a triumph of execution, but if I'm being honest, I liked "Sanjay's Super-team," Pixar's last short, an exercise in preposterous colors and also some genuinely heartfelt themes, a fair amount more.

Score, for what it is: 7/10


  1. I still haven't seen Monsters University yet, because money don't grow on trees, but I'm excited to get to it.

    And God, just THINKING about Baby Dory again is like putting my soul in a trash compactor. You're right that they didn't go full bore where they could have gone with that storyline (honestly, I didn't for one second think they WOULD, but if they did I might not be here today) but that [SPOILERS, I guess] scene where she's ripped from her parents by the current while trying to cheer up her mom is downright cruel. It's like being hit in the teeth with a sledgehammer.

    And I'm sorry those motherf**kers ruined Piper for you, because I was delighted by that short. It's the first thing I've seen in the theater in a long time that I had absolutely no reservations about.

    1. I'll no doubt see it again, when Dory's out on blu. (Those kids worried me, though; fortunately, they quieted down quickly enough. Still, at the end, when Dory's talking about the view, and one said "It's just the ocean," I kind of wanted to slap him or possibly her.)

      Anyway, talking [spoilers], they fooled me into thinking their parents really were gone. I thought that was actually the kinder way to go, since there was a line or two that felt, to my warped brain, as if they were foreshadowing that Dory's parents deliberately abandoned her. That was the bridge I was sure they'd never cross, and at this juncture, I'm not sure that it would've been a remotely good idea. But, then again, it's basically the underlying theme of every second of every Toy Story movie...

    2. Also, I must say, that's a primo request you did for Antagony & Ecstasy's fund raiser. I didn't realize you had donated, but you picked one of the most interesting movies of the series. I love Rope!

    3. Right on, B. I figured it was a good cause, and getting to tell Tim what to do was fun. Plus he needs to do more Hitchcock generally.

    4. (Oh, and obviously, I had a lot more disposable income a year ago. Christ, do I ever hate Pittsburgh.)