Summer at the movies? Sequels, sequels, remakes and more sequels. Already on hand this season are “The Conjuring 2,” the spine-tingling follow-up to director James Wan’s fright-fest of 2013, and “X-Men: Apocalypse,” a mutant movie far less urgent than its title might suggest. A fresh new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” has just hatched at the multiplex, which will also be hosting another “Captain America,” another “Ice Age,” another “Star Trek,” another Bourne film, an all-women “Ghostbusters,” a remake of “The Magnificent Seven” and a newly revised “Ben-Hur,” directed by Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian-Kazakh director of the gleefully violent “Day Watch,” “Night Watch” and “Wanted.” Will “Ben” still be “A Tale of the Christ”? Maybe not. Will the sequels ever cease? Maybe not.
But there are two films this summer that are defying the reasons why we have so many sequels to begin with—namely, branding and momentum. The idea is to produce a Part II and get it to fans of the original before their ardor cools. In the case of “Independence Day: Resurgence”—which arrives in theaters not on Independence Day but on June 24—it has been a good 20 years since the original film appeared. While it seems that the world of film has barely recovered from the alien onslaught that caused such destruction and death circa 1996, fans of the first movie may have in fact dealt with their grief and moved on. Had children. Grandchildren. Retired. Maybe they will have time to see the sequel after all.
The other film riding a slow wave ashore is Finding Dory, the 13-years-in-the-making follow-up to “Finding Nemo,” one of the more successful G-rated movies ever. “Nemo” was actually re-released in 3D back in 2012 and has also become the best-selling DVD of all time. So it hasn’t exactly been in hiding since its initial opening in 2003. One could assume, quite reasonably, that Pixar wanted to squeeze as much out of it as possible before doing an encore.
So how is it, this encore? It’s O.K. It might sound persnickety, but “Finding Dory” might be a more interesting movie than “Nemo” without being any better, or having a message that will resonate quite so resoundingly with young viewers (viewers who might, in fact, be scared out of their wits by a couple of scenes). The story of “Nemo,” after all, was archetypically fairy tale: A boy—or in this case a boy fish—has disappeared. His overprotective father, Marlin (voice of Albert Brooks), has already lost the rest of his family to a barracuda attack, an event that left Nemo with an underdeveloped fin. Marlin is not just the father of a missing child; he is the father of a missing child with special needs. His inconsolable, heedless, headlong pursuit of his son was quite inspiring to parents. For small kids of the time, it was probably the most reassuring thing they had ever experienced out of the video library of modern childhood.
Dory, the blue hippo tang with short-term memory loss, was Marlin’s comedy sidekick, the Art Carney to his Jackie Gleason, the Patrick Star to his SpongeBob SquarePants. “Dory”—more spinoff than sequel, really—takes a character who was delightful in small doses and builds an entire movie around her, tossing the animated dice that the chemistry is going to work, that more of a good thing won’t actually be less.
Voiced once again by Ellen DeGeneres, who has lobbied Pixar for years to make this movie (and why not?), Dory is mentally challenged; there is no way around it. As a baby, with her heavily lidded eyes, distinctive speech pattern and sweetness, she seems meant to represent a child with Down syndrome. Whether or not that is the intention, her disability is not from the trauma of being swept away from her parents by the violent current that separates them, years before the events of “Nemo.” It is portrayed as a birth defect—albeit a birth defect that can be overcome. This shouldn’t be so irritating; but the movies in general have an embarrassing history of portraying any mental incapacity as something that can be cured by the appropriate amounts of love, and Pixar should know better. (Overcome, yes—but cured? Not usually without divine intervention, which is not something “Dory” entertains.)
If this review seems to be demanding too much of Pixar, or providing too cerebral a reading of what is ostensibly a kid’s movie, it is not. Pixar has a history of running a dark narrative thread through the pastel fabric of its fairy tales, from the elegiac opening of “Up” to the unspoken domestic dysfunction behind the “Toy Story” films (and the hellish visions of “Toy Story 3”), the post-eco-apocalypse of “WALL-E” and even the psychological unease underlying the otherwise mirthful “Inside Out.” Pixar is out to provoke the older mind and perhaps stimulate the younger. Good for them. And, usually, good for us.
So what are those audiences meant to take away from “Dory”? That the world is full of people with problems (O.K., fish with problems) and that some of those problems can be fixed. Marlin has always been neurotic; it is his nature. Others are more intriguingly damaged, especially the ones we meet after Dory is led by her improving memory to the Morro Bay Marine Life Institute—whence, it turns out, she sprang. Hank, for instance, the seven-tentacled octopus voiced by Ed O’Neill of “Modern Family,” has been institutionalized for so long he has become something of an agoraphobe—the idea of re-entering the sea, or any place without comfortable routines, terrifies him. Bailey (Ty Burrell), a beluga whale who is in the institute’s infirmary, suffers from crippling hypochondria. Destiny (Kaitlin Olsen), a whale shark and Bailey’s next-door cellmate, struggles with the fact that she is so myopic she basically has to function as a blind person. Everybody feels guilty about his or her flaws, not the least Dory, who blames herself for getting lost, and for staying lost. (“I suffer from short-term memory loss,” she tells everyone. “It runs in my family.… At least I think it does.... Where are they?”)
Who exactly is “finding” Dory? Well, Dory herself, one supposes. She scours her mind for clues to her history, a flash of her parents (Eugene Levy, Diane Keaton) and a P.T.S.D.-inspired image of a disorienting journey out of the institute and into the sea. The film’s director, Andrew Stanton (“WALL-E,” “Nemo”), has explained that flashbacks were purposefully left out of “Nemo” in order to generate sympathy for Marlin—the viewer needed to know immediately why the guy was such an overbearing noodge. “Dory,” conversely, is built on flashbacks, with Dory’s memory coming back in tantalizing increments and her lifelong handicap in turn slowly dissolved by fond memories and love of family.
The more cynical among us would point out that such a tactic also creates tension, conflict and drama, but any fan of Pixar already knows what they are going to get at “Finding Dory”: a mix of charm, wit and intelligence, combined with animation so routinely spectacular that a reviewer might not even think to mention it until the end of his review.
(By the way, “Dory” is preceded by a short titled “Piper,” which is too cute by half, but seems, with its abundance of waves and fluffy seabirds, intended to showcase Pixar’s progress in overcoming what were long the twin bugaboos of modern animation: hair and water. As they say on “Peg + Cat,” our current favorite cartoon, “Problem solved.”)