Remarkable supporting characters are not exactly new to Disney and its partners. In fact, they have been an integral part of the company’s animated magic ever since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came out in 1937, as the titular group of bearded little men, and also the lovable Dopey, gained far more prominence than the starring princess. From that point onwards, Disney has been building an ever-growing list of unforgettable sidekicks that, by playing second fiddle, have been responsible for gags and laughs, such as Frozen’s Olaf; and for intriguing emotional hooks as well, as it was the case with the talking furniture of Beauty and the Beast.
As the abominable Cars 2 proved, though, handing major roles to successful side characters is not a guaranteed recipe for success. Finding Dory, however, shows that not all supporting personages are created equal, and some of them can actually succeed when the spotlight is tilted towards them. Like Mater, Dory was often fondly remembered for her major quirks – in that case, her short-term memory loss and delightful optimism; unlike him, fortunately, not only did Dory quietly become the most universally beloved character in her debut movie – the equally cherished Finding Nemo – but she also received a proper full-fledged treatment – in other words, had a rock-solid backstory developed for her – before being thrown towards a leading role.
Finding Dory is focused on the character’s major feature, the fact that she can’t remember much of anything at all. Instead of serving as some sort recurring joke, though, which would have naturally turned the movie into something that would get old pretty fast, Pixar wisely decided to explore the dark implications of that problem. As soon as the flick begins, viewers are greeted by a young Dory being taught by her parents to explain to strangers that she has memory problems in case she happens to get lost. And we see as the lovely little fish, and her parents, suffer – in different ways – from the issues caused by her disability: Dory is frustrated by her inability to do mundane tasks, while her parents worry about what will happen to her once they are gone.
Naturally, as events on Finding Nemo imply, it is only a matter of time until Dory does get lost, wanders the sea seeking for help while progressively forgetting about where she came from and what she is looking for, and bumps into a helpless Marlin seeking his missing son. Some time after that adventure, Dory has her memory triggered by a lecture delivered by Mr. Ray and remembers she longs for her family and so she, alongside a reluctant Marlin and an energetic Nemo, departs on her second cross-ocean journey.
Finding Dory seems to know that its prequel – released thirteen years before its debut – has grown into a classic both in the eyes of the now grown-up generation that watched it as children and of the youngsters who have been taught to love its characters thanks to their older siblings, parents, and relatives. Due to that, it does do a little bit of coasting on nostalgia: Crush and Squirt make a brief appearance; and many of the occurrences and characters from the previous movie receive nods. However, at the same time, it is wise enough not to blindly rely on nostalgic value, as it does a considerable palate cleansing, turning over its locations and characters alike.
For starters, knowing that the ocean – as big as it might be – has been sufficiently explored, Finding Dory quickly abandons it, as Dory’s quest takes her to a Marine Institute in California, thereby replacing the dangers of the deep sea for the threat of human interference and the challenge of navigating through a relatively urbanized location. Consequently, the new setting paves the way to the introduction of an assortment of great new characters: a bitter Octopus, a pair of whales, a trio of hilarious sea lions, and a whole lot of unique species that Finding Nemo did not tackle to a deeper degree.
Due to that small and extremely sensible shift, Finding Dory feels fresh enough to justify its existence as a sequel and avoid accusations of being a safe cash-grab by a company that is struggling creatively. Still, even if its pacing is solid, as Dory is constantly unearthing new memories that further amplify the resonance of the movie’s stellar heart, Finding Dory does feel a bit formulaic at times, particularly in its midsection, when the trio of adventurers goes through a series of unfortunate and outlandish events that, albeit fun, clearly exist for the sole purpose of filling up running time.
In the end, the element that does lift Finding Dory above the “good” threshold is its heart-wrenching emotional nucleus. Dory is always positive and good-hearted, but the world she often encounters in her search for help is one that is indifferent or that often does not know how to, or care enough to, give a hand to the poor friendly fish that wants to find her home but that has trouble figuring out where it is and how to get there. Any relation to a modern world that is way too self-centered and worried about its own problems to pay attention to those of others, which may be much more urgent and grave, is certainly not a coincidence; and Pixar delivers that message with a light and deft touch.
Those that are indeed willing to aid her, which at first usually happens due to their own interests and motivations, have their lives significantly altered by the planet’s most beloved regal blue tang and her true heart. A heart that has probably reminded so utterly pure due to the fact she cannot remember the things that have happened during her life; events that would probably make her lose a part of her kind spirit and relentless faith in others.
Dory’s wide-eyed naiveté and how she manages to keep optimistic despite everything that surrounds her are responsible for generating some of the most emotionally powerful moments Pixar has ever put to film, with one of them in particular ranking as the most distressing and agonizing one the company has produced. Therefore, Finding Dory’s child-friendly action is constantly punctuated by scenes that trigger tears or at least some sort of internal reflection by its audience, never letting them lose sight of what is guiding the journey and why it is so important, revealing that Dory has always been far more than an unforgettable side character; she has been the guiding beacon of hope that has led her friends through the troubled waters they have navigated.