Friday, June 17, 2016

Finding Dory: Another aquatic hit from Pixar

Finding Dory (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, and needlessly, for mild fantasy peril

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.17.16




Dory, in search of her parents, eventually finds her way to California's Marine Life
Institute. While searching the various aquatic zones, she encounters Hank, a
foul-tempered octopus with a flair for escapes and camouflage.
The hilariously confused, memory-challenged Dory stole the show in 2003’s Finding Nemo: no small feat, considering the engaging story and wealth of equally colorful aquatic and avian characters. And yet, with this long-gestating sequel, the folks at Pixar have done the impossible, by concocting a new co-star who gives even Dory a run for her money.

We really shouldn’t be surprised, since Pixar makes a habit of doing the impossible.

Finding Dory continues the saga of everybody’s favorite blue tang fish, voiced with such delightful, off-kilter haze by Ellen DeGeneres. As director/co-scripter Andrew Stanton explains, in his film’s press notes, Finding Nemo — despite its clearly happy conclusion — left perceptive viewers with an open question: What would become of Dory?

Her attention deficit disorder and short-term memory issues clearly weren’t going away, so ... what if she got lost again? Remember, Nemo wasn’t the only fish “lost” in the first film; we knew nothing of Dory’s origin, or what sequence of events put her in the path of the fretting clownfish Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), as he attempted to find his “kidnapped” young son.

Obviously, this was the perfect excuse for a sequel.

Stanton and his colleagues — co-director Angus MacLane, and co-scripters Victoria Strouse and Bob Peterson — have delivered the goods. Finding Dory has the essential Pixar magic: appealing characters, well-cast voice actors, zany sight gags, gentle environmental messages and, most importantly, a finely tuned story that builds to a mirthfully exciting climax.

Rarely has defeat been snatched so frequently, and cleverly, from the jaws of victory. Every time we think things have worked out ... the rug gets pulled out from under us. Time and again.

And we love it.

The story begins with some essential flashback, as we meet young Dory, darling of protective blue tang parents Charlie (Eugene Levy) and Jenny (Diane Keaton). Well aware of their little girl’s memory lapses, they’ve constructed a nurturing environment of detail-jogging “message songs” and visual cues (trails of carefully placed shells). Such precautions work for awhile, but the inevitable catastrophe occurs: Dory and her parents become separated, after which the forlorn blue tang embraces a new family by bonding with Marlin, Nemo and their many friends.

But childhood flashes keep drifting through Dory’s mind: images that suddenly remind her of the parents somewhere “out there.” And a phrase: “jewel of Morro Bay.” Well, Morro Bay is halfway around the world, which involves another long journey courtesy of totally rad turtles Crush and Squirt. Marlin and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) tag along — the former reluctantly and nervously, of course — and soon the three friends find themselves off the California Coast, in sight of the aforementioned “jewel”: the Marine Life Institute.

(Any resemblance to the majestic Monterey Bay Aquarium is purely intentional; Stanton and his legion of Pixar animators spent considerable time at the California landmark.)

The unexpected conclusion, then, is that Dory spent her childhood in one of the Marine Life Institute’s aquatic zones. But which one?

Naturally, the impulsive blue tang immediately gets separated from Marlin and Nemo. Dory winds up in a shipping annex, where she encounters a cantankerous octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill), who has a facility for escaping from his tank.

At which point, the already delightful film enters an entirely new level of fun.

Hank is a dazzling masterpiece of character animation. His tour-de-force displays of background-mimicking camouflage never cease to be cleverly hilarious, his irritable asides equally droll. The most amazing part is that he always moves like an octopus, with gloppy, slithering, multi-armed bursts of activity that are accompanied by suction-laden sound effects that remind one of a bathmat being pulled from the bottom of a tub.

He’s a never-ending source of great sight gags, his personality firmly sketched by only two eyes and their forever furrowed brows; there’s no visible mouth to unleash his cranky one-liners, but that doesn’t bother us for a moment. Sharp-eyed viewers also will notice what Dory realizes only after awhile: that Hank lost one of his tentacles — along with, apparently, his sense of humor — somewhere along the way.

Ergo, he’s technically a “septapus,” but that doesn’t make him any less talented, as a swiftly shifting escape artist. His grouchy personality also makes him the ideal foil for the eternally sunny Dory, since he naturally lacks the patience to endure hearing the same comment or question three or four times, given that she never remembers having said anything earlier. O’Neill’s irascible growl is the cherry on top.

Even so, Hank grudgingly agrees to help Dory explore the Institute’s various realms. Along the way, she re-unites with Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a near-sighted whale shark who keeps bumping into the sides of her tank, and who remembers Dory from when both were youngsters; and Bailey (Ty Burrell), a beluga whale who wails because his biological sonar skills seem to be on the fritz.

Marlin and Nemo, meanwhile, are trying to get from the nearby ocean into the Institute. Not-so-helpful suggestions come from lazy, Cockney-accented sea lions Fluke (Idris Elba) and Rudder (Dominic West), forever protecting their beloved sunning rock from other sea lion invaders; and a squawking, ill-kempt, easily distracted loon who might be persuaded into flying our two clownfish to their desired destination ... if Marlin can bond with her.

Along the way, considerable humor is milked from two phrases — “Sigourney Weaver” and “hands” — that become clever running jokes. The latter also is subtly instructive, and might encourage discerning adults to keep a more watchful eye, when their children aggressively charge toward an aquarium “kid zone.”

Similarly, the story doesn’t call undo attention to the occasional trash-laden ocean landscapes where Dory wanders; the visual is simply there, as a sobering backdrop. And while Destiny’s frequent head-bonks are attributed to her near-sightedness, this obviously wouldn’t be a problem, if she weren’t confined to such a small tank. One hopes these messages are received.

Marlin continues to be fussy, nervous and overly protective, Brooks getting maximum mileage from the neuroses that he has made such a signature tic, during his long comedic career. That said, Marlin also gets most of the story’s emotionally powerful dialog, which Brooks delivers with heartfelt sincerity. It’s always more dramatically compelling when a tender line comes from a character who seems least equipped to deliver it.

Levy and Keaton are appropriately nurturing as Dory’s caring parents; Elba and West are a stitch as the lethargic sea lions. We also get a fleeting cameo appearance by the possessive seagulls (“Mine!” “Mine!” “Mine!”).

Thomas Newman’s orchestral score deftly complements the onscreen action, which Stanton, MacLane and editor Axel Geddes maintain at a lively clip.

As is customary with Pixar features, this film is preceded by a short: Piper, director Alan Barillaro’s adorable study of a young sandpiper that learns how to dig into beach sand for food, while navigating the intrusive splash of ocean waves. The animation is impressively lifelike — astonishing, really — and the story is quite endearing.

All told, then, Piper and Finding Dory make a thoroughly enjoyable package. After the slight stumble with last autumn’s The Good Dinosaur, Pixar definitely has regained its mojo.

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