On Pixar's Finding Dory and the distinct languages of genre
Finding Dory Walt Disney Studios
Director: Andrew Stanton
Screenplay: Andrew Stanton and Victoria Strouse
Starring: The voices of Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O'Neill, Kaitlin Olsen, Ty Burrell, Hayden Rolence, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy and Idris Elba
Rated PG / 1 hour, 37 minutes
June 17, 2016
(out of four)
Pixar gets credit for a great many things (for good reason), and yet perhaps not quite enough for its mastery of genre. This is not as easy as it sounds, nor as common.
It's simple enough to do genre, be it straightforward, pastiche, or somewhere in between. The concept is so fluid by this point that "hybrid" is basically the default setting. But those that do it best seem to have a prodigious understanding of the specific language of every genre - how and when and where to apply them, like a chef at a high-end fusion restaurant. Pixar's filmmakers are uncommonly sharp in this regard - imagining one type of story as another, finding the exact language that best embodies the way the narrative should emotionally operate.
And so we get a superhero saga styled as a Bond movie, or a prehistoric coming-of-age fable as a Western, or a postapocalyptic robot tale as a silent comedy, not to mention the wildly varied stylistic mashups of Pete Docter. And now, with Finding Dory - Andrew Stanton's return to animated filmmaking post-John Carter and sequel to his own Finding Nemo - we have a lost character's journey home interpreted as a caper movie.
It's a logical enough stylistic choice to make once Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) gets it in her head to go in search of the parents she was quite accidentally separated from years earlier. Knowing what we do about her - both her cheerful zeal for any task put in front of her and her, shall we say, severe memory limitations - it only makes sense that her new objective be presented as a sort of blank slate, fraught with danger, and in which clues may or may not lead anywhere. But more importantly, the genre template underscores the emotional and dramatic stakes of what she's attempting. The interrogation of her own subconscious becomes an act of high-level espionage.
But though the stylistic connection may well be an easy one for the filmmakers to make, it's their commitment to it and their proficiency in the ins and outs of the conventions they're exploiting that sets their work apart. Consider Dory's introduction to Hank (Ed O'Neill), a red octopus who begrudgingly becomes one of her allies. When we first see him, he appears to be on a secret mission of his own - camouflaged against white tiling, sliding flat across the wall like a sleuth as he tries to make his way to safety.
The two join forces - he'll help lead the way to her family in exchange for the tag wrapped around her fin, which will give him the life of safety and comfort (in a permanent aquarium in Cleveland) that he so desires - and eventually a coalition of co-conspirators builds around them. Dory's childhood friend Destiny (Kaitlin Olsen), a whale shark. Bailey (Ty Burrell), a beluga with a faulty echolocation system. And of course Nemo (Hayden Rolence) and the always-fussy Marlin (Albert Brooks), who kinda owes Dory one. What develops is an increasingly complicated caper whose logic is made up completely on the fly, moment to moment - perfect for a fish with no short-term memory.
Stanton and his team are endlessly playful with the way they handle the action, giving us proxies for the kinds of scenarios and archetypal characters we're so used to seeing in similarly staged live-action films. The scene where someone sneaks around through the vents? Yeah, this movie's got it - but instead of the vents it's the pipes underneath the Marine Life Institute. Need a lookout? That's what the sea lions Rudder and Fluke (Idris Elba and Dominic West) are there for. Surveillance? Hello, echolocation. How about a perfectly timed diversion? Don't worry, Nemo and Marlin - with the help of a loon (and de-facto mercenary) named Becky - are all over it. And all the while, the jazz flute dominating Thomas Newman's score gives the whole thing the exact heist flavoring it needs.
The biggest substantive difference between Finding Dory and its 2003 predecessor is that this one has to really address the idea of memory head-on. In Finding Nemo, it didn't need to be anything more than a running joke - a good one, but still just a joke. Here, with Dory taking center stage, the weight of an entire story rests on her memories. Stanton and co-writer Victoria Strouse not only use that as a way to poignantly flesh out the character, but as the basis for the film's primary narrative mechanism. And those two things go hand in hand. As Dory and Friends' adventure plays out as if they're ripping off the Bellagio, the target itself is being reverse-engineered. Dory doesn't know what she's looking for; each flash of memory is a clue to something further and further back, and she dutifully follows each one - without the benefit of a safety net.
How Stanton visually handles the way memory functions is so graceful, as he reconstructs pathways in Dory's subconscious through elegant visual cues - replicating exact compositions from our periodic flashbacks to Dory's childhood, or simply using specific totems that spark recognition (particularly, in her case, purple seashells). With the short-term memory conceit, people have been quick to point out the obligatory Memento comparison. But considering the exacting way this film uses objects, places and context clues to find and trigger memories, perhaps Inception would be the more appropriate Nolan parallel.
Stanton and cinematographer Jeremy Lasky effectively employ point-of-view shots, particularly as a way of evoking disorientation when Dory is most at a loss (as well as when she's recalling specific moments in time), which contrasts nicely with the more classical compositions put to such strong use elsewhere.
Finding Dory feels fundamentally lightweight in the way a lot of adventure capers do - but also in part because of its overt conventionality within the Pixar M.O. The studio seems to be in the habit of reinforcing the same things; this movie, like so many entries before it, boils down to characters finding their way home, parents and children (or facsimiles thereof) reuniting with each other. In other words, it lands in the same spot as Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur and Brave and Toy Story and Toy Story 3 and, of course, Finding Nemo. There's nothing wrong with it, but after a time the formula begins to feel like formula. Still, the filmmakers are still operating at such a high skill level that they have no trouble turning this sequel - which is significantly better than Pixar's last two follow-up entries, Cars 2 and Monsters University - into an inventive and remarkable tale in its own right.