3 stars (out of 4)
You remember Dory, right?
She was the little blue tang fish (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) with short-term memory loss in 2003’s Finding Nemo. Plucky. Friendly. Unexpectedly helpful. Now she stars in her own delightful spinoff. And though by nature the film (opening Friday, June 17) is less imaginative than the original, it will still enchant kids of all ages.
One year has passed since the successful rescue mission of Nemo, and Dory’s life with the young clown fish (Hayden Rolence) and his neurotic, overprotective dad, Marlin (Albert Brooks), is going just swimmingly, thanks. She has a tendency to wander off and ask a gazillion questions, but hey, you take the good with the bad.
Still, she can’t shake the feeling that her parents are looking for her. One blasé mention of “the undertow” is all it takes to trigger a flashback in which young Dory learns an important safety lesson from her mom and dad, Jenny (Diane Keaton) and Charlie (Eugene Levy). She knows she got separated from them years ago. But where? When? California sounds familiar. Maybe? By golly, she needs to find them right now!
Dory and her pals cross the ocean, and so begins yet another Pixar adventure story in which the main character tries to find the way home. (Toy Story wasn’t just a trendsetter in 1995 because of its groundbreaking computer animation.) Indeed, as Marlin cries out, “Not again!” while Dory accidentally gets scooped from the waters, the audience might nod its collective head in agreement. She ends up at the Marine Life Institute, where, according to its spokeswoman, Sigourney Weaver, the goal is to rescue, rehabilitate and release. (Just like in Wall-E, the actress is heard but never seen.) Kids and adults swarm the tourist attraction every day, oblivious that the colorful fish in these exhibitions have even more colorful personalities.
The escape plan is simple. All Dory needs to do is follow a few instructions, and she’ll be reunited with Mom and Dad. Alas, she remains hindered by her poor recall skills, and every time it seems like she’s on the cusp of a revelation, her mind goes blank. And so on. And so on. The first time around, Dory’s “I forgot!” shtick was an appealing novelty; now it wears thin in a hurry. No, Dory, don’t go right when you’re supposed to go left!
When it comes to creating a wholly immersive universe, though, Pixar rules the school. Any studio can throw money at a movie to ensure that dazzling images zig and zag on the screen; it takes some mighty fine writers and actors to deliver a dose of humanity to cold-blooded sea creatures. Dory, you see, has a knack for making friends with endearing — not to mention highly memorable — allies in the waters. And everyone from a cranky camouflaged octopus (Ed O’Neill) to an eager-to-please whale (Ty Burrell) and a pair of sea lions (Idris Elba, Dominic West) adds distinct comic personality to the journey. (Kudos to whoever came up with the inspired idea of the two Modern Family actors playing off their TV personas.) Though her parental goal never wavers, Dory learns with each passing encounter that family comes in all shapes and species.
(Speaking of which: Thanks to endless viewings of Finding Nemo, there’s a sincere gratification in watching Marlin spend quality time with his long-lost young son. #Neverforget)
Finding other reasons to smile during the 105-minute pic is easy. The zany shenanigans aside, the message at the heart of the film is a real winner. During Dory’s lowest moments at the bottom of the sea, she learns how to use her shortcomings to her advantage. Instead of panicking, she acts on her impulses and becomes resourceful. Sometimes it takes a slow-witted animated fish to illustrate the benefits of thinking on your fins (er, feet). Now that’s a lesson worth retaining.