June 23 2016 09:20 AM

‘Finding Dory’ offers sumptuous visuals, skimpy plot

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“Finding Dory” has me worried for Pixar.

The studio has a remarkable track record, despite a few forgivable stinkers, churning out animated films worthy of critical, artistic and cultural respect. “Finding Dory” isn’t lacking in quality — in fact, I enjoyed it more than 2003’s “Finding Nemo.” But “Finding Dory” represents a crucial point in Pixar’s development, as the studio is currently up its production output, balancing its new films with an increasing number of sequels.

Thankfully, “Finding Dory” reverses the recent trend of disappointing Pixar sequels like “Monsters University” and “Cars 2” and is more in line with the “Toy Story” franchise. While sequels offer room for growth, a chance to deepen and enrich their worlds and characters, there’s also room for failure. The worst of these are nothing more than cynical cash grabs, devoid of the inspiration that defines Pixar’s best originals.

The latter scenario is exemplified in the script to “Finding Dory,” its weakest element. While there are new twists to the story, it suffers from overfamiliarity. A year after “Finding Nemo,” Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), the lovable blue tang from the first film who suffers from short-term memory loss, has the memory of her lost family triggered and convinces her new surrogate family, Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence), to go on a journey to California to find her parents. Once again, there’s a cross-ocean adventure that winds up in a space where aquatic animals are kept in captivity —it’s an animal rehabilitation center this time, as opposed to a dentist’s fish tank — colorful and hilarious characters are met along the way, an action-packed climax is reached and, amid all the zany antics and comedic chaos, the “Pixar Moment” is reached: a scene of peak emotional catharsis, the moment close to the end of the film where the filmmakers inevitably make you cry — or at least try to.

There are a few throwback jokes and characters that writer/director Andrew Stanton and co-writer Victoria Strouse seem to throw in for fan service. While they are fun, most feel like empty references that distract from all that is new and compelling in the film. The new supporting characters are perhaps funnier than those in “Finding Nemo,” but they’re also not as memorable. They feel like walking joke machines, and some rely on dull clichés. There isn’t anybody quite as fun or funny as Crush the sea turtle or Bruce the shark. This may be unfair, as I haven’t had as long to live with these new characters, but I don’t find myself quoting specific lines or endearing character traits from Dory’s new friends, just a vague recollection that I found them funny without any specificity. In terms of character and plot, “Finding Dory” doesn’t stack up to its predecessor. It gives you what you expect from a “Finding Nemo” sequel, but it lacks the depth of Pixar’s best efforts. There’s none of the psychological complexity and emotional maturity of “Inside Out” or the astute social commentary of “Wall-E.”

But where Stanton lacks narrative originality, he makes up for it in a welcome overabundance of visual ideas. In fact, the Pixar film I can make the closest comparison to is Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles.” Both films show an ostentatiously vibrant, inventive, playful and intelligent approach to their filmmaking. But where Bird’s style is tight and rigorous, a lean, mean, well-oiled entertainment machine, Stanton’s is wild, free-wheeling and stunning. He takes full advantage of the vibrant colors and unique physics of the world he and his animators have created and lets his imagination loose in ways “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E” only hinted at. Those earlier films felt showy in their approach, creating awe-inspiring images and composing them in wide, painterly shots, as if to show off the team’s hard work in creating a beautiful underwater kingdom or the cosmic grandeur of outer space. Dory never feels like it’s showing off. We’re not on a tour of this world, we’re immersed in it, exploring its nooks and crannies and getting lost in the pure sensation of it. Stanton once again recruits Thomas Newman, one of the best working composers, to provide the score. This aids in the film not just for musical consistency’s sake, but because Newman’s rich, ethereal style is perfectly suited to the lush visuals of Stanton’s undersea universe.

The overall effect is that we feel like we’re in Dory’s head — constantly in the moment, excitedly looking for what’s next. It feels more purely cinematic and more abstract, like an experimental film by Stan Brakhage where we’re meant to get lost in the sensation of color, light, and movement. And that’s another thing: this film moves. Another animated film I could compare it to is DreamWorks’ “ow to Train Your Dragon.” Both films invest in pure kinetic physics, giving us the sense of speed and grace that one might feel flying on the back of a mythical, winged reptile or zipping around a near weightless, boundary-less aquatic environment. But Stanton knows how to embrace stillness as well, as seen in several of the film’s more emotional moments. The previously mentioned “Pixar Moment,” extremely wide shots of Dory all alone against a nearly empty backdrop, evoke a sense of fear that is nigh impossible to achieve through any other means. “Finding Dory” is a step backwards for Stanton as a literary storyteller, but it’s a major step up from him as a visual and aural one. “Finding Dory” is nothing if not an exuberant sensory experience.

And so, in one film, we have everything Pixar can do right and everything it can do wrong going forward. It can continue to push forward as cinematic artists and storytellers, or, like virtually everything else Disney touches, in can kowtow to commercial incentives and mainstream banalities. Keep going forward Pixar, or, as one of your most beloved characters would sing, “Just Keep Swimming.”

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