Preeminent film director Howard Hawks succinctly described a good movie as: “Three great scenes, no bad ones.” Many since have tried to elaborate on what defines a good movie through various criteria and rubrics, but all fall short of Hawks’s dictum. “Three great scenes, no bad ones.” Elegant and concise, and simply states: I know it when I see it.
Finding Dory — Disney/Pixar’s follow-up to the incredibly heartfelt and successful 2003 Finding Nemo — is a good movie, full stop.
Picking up shortly after the events of Finding Nemo, everyone’s favorite blue tang, Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres), begins to recollect images and moments from her past. For any other fish, this would just be a normal day’s swim, but Dory suffers from short-term memory loss — which is the only thing she can remember — and though she is the happy-go-lucky type, there is a heavy amount of sorrow in her existence, one fueled by her lack of family, tradition and legacy.
These moments come to Dory in sudden and breathtaking bursts. The animators swirl around Dory in a sort of transitional whip-pan that takes the audience and Dory back to her formative years, where the bulbous-eyed blue tang receives valuable life lessons from her parents, Jenny (Diane Keaton) and Charlie (Eugene Levy). Like all good parents, Jenny and Charlie try to impress the significance of Dory’s situation and come up with clever ways to help her in the instance of memory failure. Apples don’t fall far from the tree, and Dory’s good-natured can-do attitude, “just keep swimming,” is established to be a gift from her parents. Dory might not remember them, but they are apart of her in ways she can never shake.
These moments, which pepper the movie from beginning to end, provide Dory’s adventure with personal character. Freely moving from present to past to present, directors Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane, writers Stanton, Victoria Strouse and Bob Peterson and the army of animators behind them craft a world that manifests T.S. Eliot’s 1943 poem, Four Quartets:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
Dory’s journey is physical, emotional and spiritual, one where she must return to the center in hopes of knowing where she came from. In typical Disney/Pixar fashion, that center is a familial one. But in Finding Dory, the family is much more than a mother/father/child nucleus.
Accompanying Dory are Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) who cross the Pacific to help find Dory’s parents in Morro Bay, California. There they are assisted by a near-sighted whale shark, Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a beluga with broken radar, Bailey (Ty Burrell), a hell-bent octopus — septopus, really — with an escape plan, Hank (Ed O’Neill), a demented but loyal bird, Becky and Sigourney Weaver — in one of the movies best running gags.
How Stanton and company manage to weave all of these new characters and more – much more really, there are seals, otters, birds, fish and humans galore — into a tightly constructed 90-plus minute movie is impressive. The plot is not overtly complex, but it is a lot to chew on. However, it never distracts or slows down the engine as Dory and Co. race headlong to discover the past.
But, back to those three great scenes that make Finding Dory. The first is a throwaway, an early scene of a stingray migration that is jaw-droppingly impressive, both as spectacle and an indication of the technical capabilities of the Pixar animation staff. It’s been thirteen years since Finding Nemo and the animators have upped their game considerably. Last year’s The Good Dinosaur came with a clunky story, but computer graphics that were a feast for the eyes. Finding Dory builds on that. Particularly the use of light, color and, in one fascinating instance, a subjective camera that puts the audience on a brief theme park-esque ride. With computing power like this, technical resources are no longer a limitation.
The other great scenes: the climax — a sublime synthesis of spectacle and music, too good to spoil — and any number of diversions in Dory’s long journey. A trip to the horrors of Poker’s Cove, Bailey discovering the strongest pair of glasses, Gerald’s triumph of the rock, an otter cuddle party or anything with Becky. Finding Dory is a delight. It knows exactly where it is going and arrives in style. A worthy sequel to an outstanding predecessor.