By Richard von Busack
As its opening act, Finding Dory has a small, perfect Pixar short called Piper about a baby sandpiper coping with incoming tide … so it inevitably looks sprawling in comparison. Otherwise, it’s a better film than its predecessor, with more narrative sophistication. It’s an aquatic Memento, as the memory-challenged blue tang Dory (Ellen DeGeneres does the addled fish’s voice) retrieves forgotten images of her childhood. She seeks her long-lost parents off the coast of Morro Bay with an ever-worried Nemo and Marlon (voiced by Albert Brooks) in pursuit. Brooks’ job is to give the movie some salt, and maybe his best line comes with his frustration at the dithering Dory in a tank full of identical fish, seeking her mom and dad: “She should just pick two!”
What makes Pixar great is the way it always casts shadows behind its polychrome colors, contrasting a child’s conflicted urges for safety and adventure. The reefs are a riot of tropically colored corals and anemones, but the ocean now is dirtier, lined with more scrap and wreckage, and Dory gets netted in the plastic rings of a six-pack holder. In the contrast of Dory’s memory deficit and her difficulties as a young fish, one sees the plight of a generation, bracketed between children with learning disorders and their elders whose memories are slipping away. The poignancy should be even greater, but appealing as she is, DeGeneres is more like a trusted brand than an actress.
There are mercifully few fish puns in the script (the young Dory is called “kelpcake” and a character exclaims, “Holy carp!”), but new characters speed the tale up to a terrific action movie climax on the coast highway, with the aid of too-cute otters and a deranged coot who carries the cast in a sky bucket full of water. Studies of the intelligence and ingenuity of octopi are born out in Finding Dory’s most dynamic character, an octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill) who just wants to retreat from the ocean—“I have bad memories of that place”—to a nice safe aquarium in Cleveland. A master of disguise and escape, Hank may make octopus sushi too sad to eat, in the same way that Bambi made venison tragic.