“Just keep swimming,” we’re repeatedly told in Finding Dory, a line that was also used throughout the marketing campaign for the movie. It’s Dory’s mantra since, dealing with the short term memory loss she deals with, she’s not always sure what she’s in the middle of or what she was intending to do.
That memory loss forms the core of the movie’s plot, which is about how she finally remembers something: Her parents. As parts of the campaign alluded to, the story picks up about a year after the events of Finding Nemo as Dory begins to recall how she was separated from her parents when she was just a tiny little fish but is now getting flashes of who they are, where she came from and where they might still be.
So she enlists Marlin and Nemo to help her set out across the ocean and find them, much like she did in the first movie. Marlin is reluctant but Nemo reminds him that she, for all her faults, *did* just help Marlin do much the same thing to find him and so off the three of them go. In my MMM column I called out the inclusion of Nemo and his dad to extent they were as potentially being problematic but it was very much on-point.
The rest of the movie follows a pretty safe formula: Dory gets into a rough situation, thinks her quest has failed, suddenly finds a way to keep swimming and feels a renewed sense of purpose. Repeat. It’s perfect for kids, who will be constantly pushed to the edge of fear but then be pulled back because yes, everything is going to be alright.
That’s a fine message, but like other Pixar movies as well as some others, particularly those aimed at the under-12 crowd, what bugged me most is this: There’s no antagonist. Dory, like Lightning McQueen in the first Cars and Arlo in The Good Dinosaur, isn’t up against someone who’s actively working against her. The only obstacle she has to overcome is herself, her own limits and her own sense of self-doubt and self-worth. Sure, some of the characters she comes across are less than helpful at times, but no one is actively trying to stop her from reaching her parents.
The lack of an antagonist means something from a storytelling point of view. It means the story becomes a self-help book about how if you just work a little bit harder, believe in yourself a little bit more and visualize your goals, you can accomplish anything. This is all well and good, but it’s also sending kids the message that all of their problems are in their own heads and if they’re not accomplishing what they think they’re capable of, it’s their own fault. Not that that’s necessarily better or worse than a series of good-versus-evil stories that lead them to believe it’s always the fault of an outside force, but it is very much different and in-line with the kind of thinking you’ll find at many non-denominational churches, in the offices of many therapist gurus and so on.
While the movie has come in for praise for its depiction of living with a disability – a flashback involving Dory’s parents is possibly the movie’s most touching scene, especially if you’re a parent – I can’t help but think that’s the wrong message to send. Sometimes you *need* to ask for help in order to get through a situation, you can’t just power your way through on the basis of believing that if you’re failing it’s because you don’t want it enough.
What the movie does well is keep the audience invested in Dory and her friends. She is a compelling character, whatever the faults of the story might be, and it’s impossible not to rout for her. As the campaign showed us, there’s a nice mix of emotion and humor to keep the audience balanced and moving from one thing to the next, all that with occasional dollops of tension to remind us that yes, there are stakes here. I don’t think I’d put it above the original Finding Nemo, were I to rank them against each other, but I’d have to rewatch Nemo to say for sure. In the meantime, Finding Dory is a pleasant way to spend 90 or so minutes in the theater with someone who, surprisingly for a side character who originally served as comic relief of a sort, doesn’t wear out her welcome, largely because she’s just so darn earnest about everything.