‘Finding Dory’: A Celebration of Disability, Differences, and Friendship

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DO I KNOW YOU? — In Disney-Pixar’s “Finding Dory,” everyone’s favorite forgetful blue tang, Dory (voice of Ellen DeGeneres), encounters an array of new -and old- acquaintances, including a cantankerous octopus named Hank (voice of Ed O’Neill). Finding Dory swims into theaters June 17, 2016.

I was pleasantly surprised by Finding Dory.  It had all the ingredients to be a very boring movie. It’s a sequel. It’s an origin story. It’s got baby versions of the main character. It’s a recipe for a boring sequel designed all around toy marketing instead of storytelling. Do we really need to know why Dory speaks whale? Would it even be interesting? As it turns out, yes.

Pre-Disney, Pixar stayed away from sequels as much as possible, too. They made Toy Story 2 at Disney’s request, but they still insisted that it had to have a compelling enough story to make it worth doing. After Disney bought Pixar, the sequels followed: Cars 2, Monsters University, Toy Story 3, and the promise of a new sequel every other year. None of them are bad movies. They’re just not the really great movies the originals were.

In Finding Dory, Pixar has found a story worth telling. While Finding Nemo told the story of how Nemo and Marlin overcame the odds and their fears to find each other, Dory is the mirror image. What if Marlin never found Nemo? What if Nemo grew to adulthood without finding him again? That’s what has happened to Dory, who you may have heard suffers from short-term memory loss. Did we mention she suffers from… Oh, I’ve already told you that?

After a night of fitful sleep, Dory suddenly remembers that her parents are off of “the Jewel of Morro Bay,” which turns out to be a large facility inspired by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. She persuades Marlin and Nemo to help her find it. While trying to get a closer look, she’s “rescued” by well-meaning biologists, and now it’s Dory in the aquarium while Marlin and Nemo try to rescue her.

Disability plays a large role in this movie, and in all but one or two cases the disabilities and differences are celebrated rather than played for laughs. Characters must learn to overcome their fears, usually centered around their disability (I’ll never make it in the ocean with ___).  Friends and family members help teach each other adaptive behavior. You see Dory’s parents carefully teaching her adaptive skills and trying to build her confidence while secretly worrying that it may not be enough. Characters learn to trust that their friends are capable. This is a continuation of Marlin’s trust of Nemo’s ability to swim in spite of his “lucky fin.”  In a broader sense, it’s also what all parents have to do for their children. Eventually, we all have to teach our children how to get along in the big world without us, and we never really know if we’ve succeeded until they’ve grown and left for the open ocean. Even the opening short plays on the same themes, with a child who must overcome fear and learn self-reliance.

The broader plot of Finding Dory was fairly predictable and followed many of the same paths as the original, but there were delightful surprises along the way. It never became boring. Dory was worth seeing in the theater, although you’d be just fine skipping the 3D upgrade.

If you’d like, you can extend the movie into a summer enrichment activity. Monterey Bay Aquarium may be outside of your road trip zone, but here’s a Finding Dory Educational Activity Pack courtesy Pixar/Disney to help with the ocean activities.

PS: Stay until the very end. There’s a post-credits scene you’ll miss if you leave early. Finding Dory opens today, June 17, 2016. Full disclosure: This writer received an early press screening of this movie.