Thirteen years after the mega-blockbuster "Finding Nemo," Pixar dives back into the ocean to fill in the bittersweet backstory of the forgetful, perpetually optimistic blue tang fish, Dory (once again wonderfully voiced by Ellen DeGeneres). And while the studio's animated fish saga wasn't exactly crying out for another chapter, the result is as delightful and satisfying as fans of the first film could have hoped.
As Pixar's output grows to include more and more sequels to its most beloved properties, the sterling reputation has diminished ever so slightly: for every brilliant "Toy Story 3" there's an instantly forgettable "Monsters University."
Early on in "Finding Dory," it seems Pixar might be content to simple rehash "Finding Nemo," dutifully trotting out familiar characters and referencing the most memorable events from that film. But thankfully, it quickly finds its own voice as Dory enlists the assistance of Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (now voiced by Hayden Rolence) to help her reunite with her long-lost parents (Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton), who we meet in flashbacks to Dory's childhood, when she was the most adorably big-eyed fry that's ever existed.
I don't think it's a stretch to rank DeGeneres' role as Dory among the best vocal performances of all time. Dory's unflagging optimism clearly struck a chord with audiences, and while her short-term memory loss was played mostly for laughs in the first film, learning her history adds a layer of poignancy that only makes her character more endearing. The film successfully introduces a whole new fleet of characters along the journey, most memorably a curmudgeon octopus named Hank (voiced by Ed O'Neill), who becomes Dory's unlikely ally.
There's a fun, well-staged action sequence that concludes the movie -- if you think there's no way that a film set in the ocean can include a car chase, well have I got news for you -- and a running joke involving the voice of a well-known performer that delighted me every single time the film returned to it.
While "Dory" is funnier and sillier than the original, it has its share of darker moments. Directors Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane turn their tale into a rather clever and heartfelt (but never heavy-handed) examination of what it's like to live with a disability or to act as caregiver for a child with special needs. It's an unexpected but welcome facet to the film, which is sure to resonate with a lot of people.
As is the norm, "Finding Dory" is preceded by a short, the adorable "Piper." Directed by Alan Barillaro, the short follows a young sandpiper struggling to overcome a traumatic fear of water. With an instantly loveable protagonist and stunning photorealistic animation -- from the lush ocean water to the individual grains on the sandy beach, the short is simply dazzling.