This is a spoiler-free review.
Pixar has had a bit of a rough track recently, putting out a fantastic film (Inside Out) and, from what I've been told, a pretty mediocre film (The Good Dinosaur), a film that I didn't even realize was a Pixar movie until someone told me. And before that, their sequel run hasn't exactly been inspiring; Toy Story 3 was amazing, of course, but Cars 2 and Monsters University weren't stellar, or even very good. So I went into Finding Dory with a lot of reservations. Finding Nemo is one of my favorite Pixar films ever, and doing a sequel to a story that, frankly, didn't need one seemed a bit out of the blue (no pun intended).
But this has reaffirmed the idea that Pixar doesn't do sequels unless they think they have a legitimately good idea. And Finding Dory is certainly one of the best they've had in a while.
Dory isn't as complex a film as Nemo, having one plot running through the film that focusses on one character, in contrast to all that wove into the first one. But I think the sequel has a much stronger moral message than the first one did. This one focusses on mental illness specifically and disability in general and has a great message behind that theme. Usually a film focussing on disability will have the message of ‘oh just get over your disability’ or ‘don’t let your disability keep you down,' both of which sound optimistic but are actually quite harmful and dismissive of actual disabled people. But instead, Finding Dory is about learning to recognize that your disability is a part of you and that this is simply a different way of living, and that people should work to structure the world in a multitude of ways instead of just an ableist way. I loved this! It's pretty much a disability studies thesis right there, and to put this in a film for kids is great, because it manages to convey a tolerant and optimistic view of how disabled people and abled people are able to coexist.
Dory's story is quite tragic in how she lost her parents, but very optimistic in how her parents dealt with her short-term memory loss. We see adorable kid-Dory interacting with her parents as they don't just prepare her for the wider world but do so in a way that does not demonize or put blame on her short-term memory. The brief segments with big-eyed cute kid Dory and her loving parents are some of the most tender and cute scenes Pixar's ever done, and it was refreshing to see a disability worked into a kid's life instead of having it be shunned as it was in, say, Frozen, or having the whole of the kid's identity be about that in a harmful or demoralizing way as it was in, say, Me Before You.
The broader plot of the film has Dory searching for her parents in a Monterey California aquarium-like "rehabilitation center,"which works to make the humans less villainous as they were in the first film, again feeding into the larger more optimistic view of this one. The aquariums and various exhibits that Dory and new character octopus Hank explore and fall into are just as immersive as the ocean was in the first one, and more fun as the human interaction is more pronounced. A scene where Dory must evade giant human hands was particularly riveting, and I loved how all the different tanks and such gave variation to the water and environments.
Marlin and Nemo tag along for the ride, though their brief subplot is bare-bones and not as engaging as I think it could have been. Also, for all that I loved Hank, I felt especially on this second viewing that his story was almost all cut out of the final draft of the movie, not getting resolved as well as I think it was originally going to.
Those two things aside, however, the film is great. The animation is miles above what it was in Nemo, no surprise there, and once again Pixar knows how the hell to animate some beautiful and breathtaking marine life. Great colors, vibrant environments, and fluid movements all make this a visual candy treat! Coupled with superb voice acting that pretty much sells itself, this movie is just so fun to watch.
Finding Dory isn't as complex in theme or plot as its predecessor, but the moral and the character evolution is far stronger. As a visually-impaired person myself, Dory's optimistic tone and fierce acceptance of disability and impairment as things that exist in the world and that shouldn't be "cured" or "overcome" is just inspired. A message like that, that still has trouble squeezing into academia, is something that should be cherished and passed down, and I'm so thrilled that this made it into a children's movie. Such a great time!