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Keep Pixar Weird

‘Finding Dory’ is Andrew Stanton’s attempt to play it safe

Pixar/Ringer illustration
Pixar/Ringer illustration

“Is she dead?” a young fish asks of a passed-out Dory (Ellen DeGeneres). “No, she’s not dead,” says an adult. The entire school of fish — students in fish school — groans with disappointment. “Aww, man!”

Well, damn.

Surprisingly and not, Finding Dory gets dark. Quite dark, when you think about it, but you have to look beyond the fabricated whimsy of the story toward all the tragic weirdness hovering just outside of it. You have to notice the surroundings: a sunken freighter, with its steel cargo containers crumpled along the seafloor like a kingdom of forgotten junk and the plastic soda rings that briefly ensnare an always-unsuspecting, freckle-faced Dory. You have to consider where Dory comes from: a marine life institute where (the voice of Sigourney Weaver tells us) scientists believe in the three R’s: “rescue, rehabilitation, and release.” Sounds dreamy — until an octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill) explains he’s missing a tentacle thanks to the throngs of grabby children at said institute, making him, as Dory helpfully points out, a septopus, not an octopus. A septopus with toddler-induced post-traumatic stress disorder.

It’s insightful, darkly funny stuff, this trove of secondary details, all of it hinting at a weirder world of humans and other forces that exceed the eventual story’s needs. If there’s any company in Hollywood with the brain power and the commercial freedom to have done something with that world, it’s Pixar, which just got a little richer and, you’d think, a little freer to take a risk. With its $136.2 million opening weekend, Finding Dory has had the biggest domestic opening of any animated movie ever; risks or no, the movie’s promise was that it’d make money.

It’s the certainty of the movie’s success that makes you wish, even as you’re enjoying the reunion (Marlin and his son Nemo are back, and so are a few other favorites) that Finding Dory had freed itself up from the audience’s expectations — for kids’ sake, I mean. It is a truth universally acknowledged that kids keep it pretty weird. Bless them. They don’t crave coherence: They crave spectacle and mischief. They need more than bare sentiment: They need their minds lit up. Finding Dory sandbox chatter will consist of the time the frightened octopus inked everywhere, or of the neon-lit claw-jawed freakazoid hiding out in the freighter, or of the rabbit pooping Cocoa Puff–esque pellets in one of the trailers preceding the movie. Humor in the Looney Tunes tradition, in other words. There’s a chance kids won’t care about all the social and familial subtext that Pixar insists on packaging with it, though they’ll undoubtedly remember all the life lessons, the way I remember The Lion King teaching me that fratricide is Not OK, which, I mean, sure. Right. Thanks.

The least of kids’ worries is the one that most bugs the industry: whether this Pixar sequel is reminiscent enough of the 13-year-old — older than they are! — original. These aren’t angry Ghostbusters originalists we’re talking about: again, bless them. Props to directors who find ways to get creative within what increasingly appear to be Pixar’s stringent emotional and aesthetic frameworks. The beautiful mystery of underwater shipwrecks and the gleeful recklessness of children are clearly subjects of interest for the director, Andrew Stanton, who wrote the Toy Story movies and both wrote and directed Finding Nemo, A Bug’s Life, and, best of all, Wall-E. Stanton specializes in sentiment, it’s true, but he also has an eye for wonderful grotesque and a touch of an environmentalist streak. This is the stuff that really gets his movies going. Wall-E had a wary awe at the industrial future humans have all but guaranteed for themselves; the junk in Finding Dory feels like a throwback. And the violent, prodding children in what Dory’s starfish call “Pokey Cove” have more than a little in common with the manic, destructive preschoolers in Toy Story 3 — yet another case of toddler-induced PTSD in a Stanton script, by the way. Buddy, I’m sensing a trend.

The trend is this. Children are bad, m’kay? And people litter. Humans destroy things. This stuff is a little beyond the purview of much of the Pixar universe, which must be what feels so refreshing about it in Stanton’s movies. Too often, the utopias Pixar imagines for children are so much duller, morally and aesthetically, than the worlds those kids already live in. The pleasure of Finding Dory, for an adult, is its sense of the dangerous wonder of the wider world, as scary as it is irresistible. Hence the movie’s poster image, of Dory overwhelmed by the vacant breadth of the wide, blue sea. This is where Dory, per the title’s double meaning, finds herself. Out there, in the vast, wondrous strangeness.

The central irony of Finding Dory is that Dory is a risk-taker trapped in a movie that, for all its likability, won’t join her on whimsical leaps. Funny, then, that the movie ends with a bunch of aquarium fish escaping confinement — as if to openly wonder when Pixar will do the same. Stanton is continually on the verge of revitalizing the Pixar movie, making things just a little stranger, a little more dangerous, than the studio needs them to be, but not so much that we can’t recognize the brand in the movie. Maybe, from where he’s sitting, rejecting risk is for the better; the last movie he directed, the live-action feature John Carter, was a massive risk that ended Very Badly. Hence Finding Dory? It’s a movie about a forgetful fish who retreads her past to return home, where it’s safe to be, where she can stick to taking the smallest chances. Doesn’t that tell you everything — if not about Dory, about the industry?