Tuesday, 9 August 2016
Small pond syndrome: "Finding Dory"
Pixar strike big with Inside Out; Disney's own, inhouse pixel-pushers respond with Zootropolis; Pixar counter with a sequel to one of their best-loved features. The Mouse House's animated civil war continues, bloodless, and pretty good for the onlooker in the main. Finding Dory even bests Inside Out in one minor respect: Alan Barillaro's beautifully observed accompanying short Piper, which improves upon nauseating predecessor Lava in describing, in pinsharp detail, both that frontier where the land meets the sea, and a sandpiper's hesitant progression from helpless child to community activist. Yes, it's more Disney anthropomorphism, but approached on its own terms, it's an affecting metaphor for growth and adaptation, and Barillaro's unfailingly precise animation really does strive to locate the world in a grain or two of sand.
The main feature, on the other hand, struck me as merely a touch circumscribed by its task - namely to measure up against all the aforementioned achievements in animation, plus the modern classic to which it owes its existence. You'll remember Dory as a vital supporting presence in 2003's Finding Nemo: the blue tang voiced by Ellen DeGeneres who suffered from short-term memory loss yet still played her part in reuniting the desperate Marlin (Albert Brooks) with his wayward offspring. The backstory writer-director Andrew Stanton sketches in for her in Dory - that she was separated from her own parents at an early age - actually manages to make the first film more interesting: not that we knew it at the time (and not that she herself would recall it), but Dory was a survivor of childhood trauma coming to help another avoid it. First time round, a parent was returned to his child, via a quest narrative that dived emotionally deeper than 95% of those that swam in its wake; this time around, a child will be returned to her parents. The symmetry is karmically, irresistibly neat.
It is, however, far from groundbreaking. Where once we were swimming from left to right, now we're swimming from right to left; to put it another way, we're going backwards. (Underdiscussed in the film's initial reviews: this is Stanton's first directorial venture since 2012's notorious crash-and-burn John Carter, and it does have the air of a retreat into safe, commercially proven space.) Dory's flatly uninspired first act isn't shy about trading upon former glories, swim-bys from the first movie's turtles and manta rays seeking to reassure us that we're treading the same waters o'fun. It's only in the second act, with the arrival of cranky octopus Hank (Ed O'Neill) that the sequel strikes out in anything like a new or worthwhile direction. This cephalopod's chameleonic properties may not be entirely scientifically accurate, but they add zappy, looney-toon notes to the film's visual and comic palette: Hank's ink reserves generate one superior sight gag, while offering Stanton the writer a handy narrative get-out-of-jail card.
Even so, the direction often feels more cornered than fluid: the first film's open waves are soon left behind in order to explore the internal plumbing of a coastal marine institute. Here, the 3D technicians can earn their corn - as they couldn't around the time of the first movie - but in resorting to sophisticated chicanery, Dory chooses to narrow down the Nemoverse, to do something more manageable than expansive. (In the reflections cast by its super-polished surfaces, you can again catch Stanton licking those John Carter wounds.) Only once does the sequel plumb the affecting, leagues-deep sense of loss Nemo aspired to, and then it's such a deviation from the functional norm as to feel like a dream sequence. It's as if the dentist's fish tank in Nemo has suddenly become the entire picture, and not just a perilous pitstop: Dory's final reel, which enlists a battalion of cuddling otters to get everybody across the line, settles for cute and funny manoeuvres over genuine emotion.
Yet even while it's venturing back down memory lane - memory inlet? - Dory does so with a brisk professionalism that keeps matters on course. The timing of its voice cast remains a joy: DeGeneres' bubbly energy as contagious underwater as it has been on the dry land of prime-time TV, Brooks offering a more relaxed variant of the drollery he floated first time round. (Marlin, with Nemo at his side throughout, obviously has less at stake here.) There's equally an argument that between his ox-like police chief in Zootropolis and his lazy sealion here, Idris Elba is doing his best work right now voicing cartoon animals, which you can't say for any of the other Bond contenders. (Although I hope you'll allow me to feign Dory-like amnesia with regard to his Shere Khan in the latest Jungle Book.) Accept the reduced parameters, and Finding Dory does keep swimming - and I was happy enough to bob along in its wake for an hour and a half.
Finding Dory is now playing in cinemas nationwide.