Finding Nemo may have been a cartoon about a clownfish traveling across the ocean looking for his son, but it was also one of Pixar's first overt forays into the workings of the human mind. The film, from 2003, was haunted by loss: The protagonist, Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), couldn’t shake the memory of his family perishing in a barracuda attack, which in turn fed his pathological protectiveness over Nemo, his sole surviving child, and his desperate efforts to save the boy. Joining Marlin on that quest was Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres), a surgeonfish whose complete lack of short-term memory provided both comedy and thematic contrast.
The back-and-forth between Marlin and Dory anchored their adventure through a universe populated by surfer-dude sea turtles, wise stingrays and 12-stepping sharks. This time, returning co-writer and -director Andrew Stanton dives even further into the emotional undercurrents — into the world of memory, trauma, loss and existential dread. And it’s harrowing. Finding Dory is one of the most devastating things Pixar has made — all while often being even bouncier than Finding Nemo.
As the title suggests, it's now that surgeonfish who needs to be saved. The film opens with a flashback to scenes of young Dory’s mother and father (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) worrying about how their daughter’s memory problem will affect her ability to fend for herself. They play hide-and-seek and try cute little rhymes to help her remember things like how to get home and to steer clear of the undertow that runs nearby. Young Dory is no airhead; she understands what’s happening to her, and is terrified: “What if I forget you?” she asks, then adds, tearfully, “Would you ever forget … me?”
We’re still talking about fish, of course, but the film doesn't try to hide its blunt appeal to very human concerns. Anybody, especially a parent, who has ever lost sleep over a loved one’s limitations and challenges will find some of their darkest fears reflected in these early scenes. But the story also hints at a universal fear of loss — at the idea that life often forces us to forget the people who were once closest to us.
The bulk of the film’s plot follows Dory in the present day, as a brief recollection of some words from her past prompts her to go off in search of her parents. So she, Marlin and Nemo journey to a California aquarium called the Marine Life Institute, where they’re accidentally separated. As the father and son try to find Dory, and as Dory attempts both to find her parents and to reunite with her friends, we get the escalating hijinks and new characters that you might expect — including a nearsighted whale shark (voiced by Kaitlin Olson), a neurotic beluga (Ty Burrell) and a crotchety octopus (Ed O’Neill).
Amid all that fun, however, Finding Dory enters into an interesting dialogue with its predecessor. In the first film, Dory's forgetfulness was often the (gentle) butt of jokes, so by plunging us into a story where this memory loss is now a cause of grave concern, the sequel subtly interrogates the original. When we see flashbacks to young Dory’s separation from her parents, we feel her terror and loneliness. The movie’s signature shot, repeated several times, shows her in a vast, empty underwater seascape, dwarfed against cold, blue nothingness.
As she grows up, Dory learns to live with her disability: She starts to make light of it, even as she continues searching the seas for — well, she can’t really remember what. The first part of Finding Dory works its way up to the Finding Nemo scene where she first runs into Marlin. But now we have a new perspective on their initial dynamic. If in Nemo her eagerness to help the distraught father was charming, this time it’s poignant: It’s the first time anyone has needed Dory and hasn’t turned away from her.
All this might make Finding Dory sound like an emotionally grueling slog, but it’s eager to please, sometimes even too much, with wilder characters and bigger, insistently sillier set pieces. It’s also messier: Gone is the tight, sharp wit of the earlier film, replaced by a looser style of comedy and an occasional over-reliance on shtick. The rules have changed, too. In the first film, a group of undersea creatures had to exert tremendous effort to escape one small aquarium, but now such creatures leap in and out of tanks, ride shooting geysers of water and navigate the outside world of humans with surprising ease; they can even read faster. Or, put another way: This is a movie in which an octopus drives a truck.
But through it all, Stanton and his team never lose focus of the deeper themes at the story’s heart. They’ve done something structurally savvy. As they build up to their big comic moments, they also cut repeatedly to Dory’s childhood and her distraught parents. This makes narrative sense: As our heroine slowly recalls more, these flashbacks offer clues to where her family might be. But these glimpses of the past also undercut the exuberance and suspense of the film's present, returning us to the character’s unspeakably sad memories. But facing that darkness also allows her to start coming to terms with her heartbreak. Finding Dory might be messy, but through its central interplay — between present and past, light and dark, joy and pain — it manages an emotional complexity that puts most supposedly grown-up movies to shame.