Finding Nemo has never been Pixar’s deepest dive, except in a very literal sense: If its story of a clownfish braving the Pacific to save his son isn’t as sophisticated as the studio’s (ahem) high-water marks, the careful rendering of every errant bubble, great reef, and finned attraction proved that oceans were made to animate. So it’s a little odd to report that Finding Dory, director Andrew Stanton’s belated sequel to his own 2003 under-the-sea smash, mostly ditches the world’s largest body of water in favor of a more confined environment—a coastal marine park, where the sea creatures mingle in smaller pools and tanks, mostly above the surface. On the one hand, this change of scenery keeps Dory from feeling like a complete rerun. On the other, it drains away much of what made Nemo so transporting, from the shimmering beauty of its submerged locales to the toothy, treacherous wonders passing through them.
As its title indicates, Finding Dory parts with its predecessor in another major way, by passing protagonist duties to the original film’s designated sidekick, that chronically forgetful blue tang. This is not a miscalculation of Cars 2 proportions: Voiced again, quite marvelously, by Ellen DeGeneres, Dory can’t hold onto a short-term memory for more than a few seconds, and that condition (in Memento parlance) remains a strong source of both pathos and punchlines. Set just a year after the events of Finding Nemo (fish don’t live that long, after all), the film inverts the rescue mission of the original by sending its irrepressible screwball heroine—propelled by sporadic flashbacks to her shamelessly adorable childhood—on a quest to find the parents she suddenly remembers she’s lost.
This journey leads straight to California, where Dory surfaces at the Monterey Marine Life Institute, and promptly becomes separated from her cavalry, the nervous Marlin (a returning Albert Brooks) and his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence). The stage seems set for a madcap tour of the facilities, but Stanton—back on the Pixar payroll after a catastrophic foray into live-action—never lends this real-life tourist destination either the deep-sea danger of Nemo’s vast oceanic backdrop or the clockwork chaos of his similarly contained WALL-E. So much of Finding Dory is devoted to carting our strictly aquatic heroes back and forth across the map, but the paths from point A to point B aren’t always inventive. A lot of the heavy lifting, literal and otherwise, falls on the supporting cast of creatures: Ornery octopus Hank (Ed O’Neill) makes a fine foil for guileless Dory, but he’s mainly around for increased mobility. Likewise, Ty Burrell’s self-conscious beluga is less a character than an excuse to introduce echolocation, whose application here is far-fetched even for a cartoon.
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Safer for all ages than its predecessor was—no fake fish were harmed in the making of this movie—Finding Dory falls squarely into Pixar’s growing second tier, where every sequel without Toy in its title seems to land. It’s all as pleasant and carefree as a day at the aquarium: Watch some nifty-looking underwater animals, never fear for their safety, and follow signs (narrative, in this case) from the entrance to the exit. There’s something a little canned about the film’s emotional arc; the strings show more than they used to on Planet Pixar, even with DeGeneres providing empathy by the gallon. But disappointment is relative when you’re addressing the biggest fish in American animation, and Finding Dory, like most “lesser Pixar,” is more fun around the edges than the competition tends to be at center. Feast on the surface pleasures, if nothing else: the photorealistic refraction of light through liquid, so easy to take for granted; an extended POV shot that gives new meaning to the expression “fish-eye lens”; and not one but two ties to the Alien franchise, including a running gag that reels in bigger laughs every time it’s repeated.