I can't say that I thought about Me Before You while I was watching Pixar's triumphant follow-up to 2003's Finding Nemo, Finding Dory, a film that brings to the forefront of our attention that hilariously lovable blue tang that we last left in the background of a joy-filled reunion between the clownfish named Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son, Nemo (played in 2003 by Alexander Gould; in 2016 by Hayden Rolence).
But, as I left the movie theatre and began basking in the afterglow of the hugely entertaining and more emotionally resonant Finding Dory, I couldn't help but celebrate that Disney, perhaps more than any other major studio today, seems to realize that growing up different, whether due to disability or life experience or simply one's obstacles, can be a truly awesome and wondrous thing.
Whereas Me Before You smothered audiences with its faux romanticism and fatalistic approach toward disability, Pixar's Finding Dory is practically devoid of both the negativity and the all too common inspiration porn approach toward disability that we so often find in our movies, books, social media videos telling us how, sniffle sniffle, awesome Betty Ann Sue is for taking autistic Bobby to the prom, and those godawful memes that ask us to click "like" one million times so quadriplegic Quentin will feel some semblance of self-esteem.
Finding Dory is different. In fact, it's not in any way a film about disability and, in all likelihood, some of you will finish reading this review and think to yourself "I didn't see any of that in Findng Dory."
THAT is precisely what's so awesome about Finding Dory, a wonderful little film about a wonderful little fish who doesn't inspire us but simply lives fully into a life that isn't like the other fishes in the sea and, in so doing it with such a sense of normalcy takes us along with her rather swimmingly because it's her we've grown to love and not those internal and external factors that can make her life so incredibly challenging.
At the end of 2003's Finding Nemo, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) was a lost soul whose constant disorientation and short-term memory loss left her alone in the world even as she'd managed to help reunite Marlin and Nemo. It was a quietly sad plight, yet it was one that Nemo left largely in the background as Dory's memory loss had primarily been part of the first film's frequent fodder for laughs.
Finding Dory isn't really a traditional sequel, though its framework largely depends upon much of what unfolded in the first film. We kick off with an origin story of sorts, a childhood glimpse into Dory's home life where her parents, Charlie (Eugene Levy) and Jenny (Diane Keaton), deal patiently and tenderly with Dory's cognitive challenges while worrying about the risks involved in having a daughter whose challenges leave her vulnerable to the not always so kind influences of the world around her.
Of course, we already know that all their excessive worry is warranted when one day Dory wanders off and is, left to her own devices, unable to find her way back home.
If it sounds like Finding Dory is a bit heavy, rest assured that it's filled with an abundance of slapstick comedy and an even greater abundance of colorful characters, perhaps too many, and director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) takes seriously the responsibility to entertain in a way that is so immersive that these life lessons flow are woven into the fabric of the film, integrated you might say, rather than actually becoming the fabric of the film.
While Finding Dory's lack of narrative cohesion ultimately keeps it from becoming top tier Pixar, the film is a more than worthy sequel to its predecessor and provides further proof, after last year's Oscar-winning Inside Out, that Pixar has found its way of a brief yet notable creative funk. Finding Dory seems content to have adventures, admittedly entertaining ones, rather than worrying about the cohesion of a story that becomes unnecessarily complex.
When Dory heads off in search of her parents, she finds herself at the Marine Life Institute in Morro Bay, loyally companioned by Marlin and Nemo, in a journey that those who have trouble suspending belief may very well find implausible and troublesome.
But, um, you're watching an animated feature. Mmmm'kay?
Throughout her journey, Dory encounters a wide variety of characters many of whom seemingly face their own challenges. Ed O' Neill, as a cantankerous octopus named Hank, has lost a tentacle and has a tremendous amount of anxiety around losing another one. Destiny (Kaitlin Olson) is a whale shark with limited vision whose regular bumping into aquarium walls feels rather trivial until one considers it within the larger framework of the film. Heck, even Ty Burrell's beluga whale has experienced a head injury that impacts his daily existence. In each of these cases, Pixar refreshingly avoids inspiration in favor of more realistic normalizing of these challenges as part of what makes each of these characters who they are.
The film benefits greatly from the presence of Ellen DeGeneres here, in this case definitely Ms. Right, as she manages to capture the beautiful balance of Dory's joy-filled innocence despite essentially reliving her life over and over and over again and the ever present anxiety she experiences living in a world where she never knows where she's been and isn't certain where she's going. While I will confess that in Finding Nemo that I found DeGeneres's familiar voice a tad distracting, there was no such distraction here as DeGeneres has so fully immersed herself in developing a complex, emotionally authentic Dory who approaches returning home without really knowing if returning home will be a good thing. It's a beautiful vocal performance that will easily be remembered as one of the year's best.
Finding Dory is filled to the brim with entertaining action sequences, slapstick humor, and the infinite heart and honesty that we have come to expect from Pixar's best films. It is a film that will, for both adults and children, elicit both laughter and tears and more than a little awe from its dizzying and fun animation.
It's all these things. And more. For those of us who identify with its characters, it's a reminder that occasionally Hollywood can get it VERY, very right when it comes to telling the stories of characters with emotional and physical challenges. It's a reminder that sometimes, as is usually true in real life, disability is neither a reason for suicide nor fodder for a three-minute feel good video but simply part of the fabric of life that helps turn us into who we are and how we survive this human experience.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic