When I wrote about Inside Out last Summer I mentioned that I didn’t like writing about kids movies very much, mostly because they rarely have a higher purpose other than entertainment and I don’t enjoy picking apart childish fun. For my dime, that isn’t so interesting to write about. Though, Pixar films have been known to possess a higher purpose.
Being that Finding Dory is a sequel to a beloved and, admittedly, very good kids film, there are certainly some interesting parallels and thematic elements to discuss. So, let’s dive in. (Get it? I’ll be here all week!)
The plot of Finding Dory is another adventure, like Finding Nemo, wherein the titular character is crossing the ocean to search for her parents whom she has suddenly started to remember again. The original film was also a familial adventure and had a personal theme of accepting personal and physical faults. The sequel dials down the ocean voyage obstacles and instead places the characters in a Sea World-like environment where many of the obstacles are man-made. This works well because they avoided treading the same water (Yeah, I got puns) as the original story.
Plot points aside, the film has several emotional moments that draw their power from our love of these characters from the first film. In the same way you knew Marlin was sacrificing his very nature in order to find his son, you know Dory’s journey is more important than just finding her home. She’s finding herself.
Heavy for a kids flick, right? Yes and no. The best kinds of these movies essentially offer a McGuffin, which is a narrative plot point that forces the characters to have an arc. Nemo was both a character and a goal for Marlin to achieve. Like I said, it’s just as important for Dory to find about herself as it is for her to find her parents. But in order for her to achieve her goal, she has to overcome her deficiencies and prove to herself she is capable of overcoming them. So the plot of her trying to find her parents is secondary to her own self discovery. And if you’re paying attention, this is the structure of nearly every story ever told.
And the first film is no different. Marlin’s journey is to find his inner courage as much as it is to find his son. But he needed the tragedy of losing his son to make it possible. His over-protectiveness and neuroticism were endearing and also served as a catalyst for the events of Finding Nemo. He had undergone tragedy in the loss of his wife, which affected his psychological state, and his voyage to find his son was in stark contrast to that. It took one tragic experience to get over the other.
Interestingly, one of the most fun parts in Finding Nemo is the Woody Allen/Diane Keaton-like relationship (though, not in a romantic way) Marlin and Dory have. She is free-wheeling and careless, and he’s a nervous wreck who envisions certain death at all times. Finding Dory rarely explores this dynamic and instead separates the two very early. What this does is it provides a set-up for the characters to depend on themselves and their resources. Dory finds a new set of new and old friends which she bonds with in various ways. Sadly, Nemo has been reduced to a sidekick and more of a resource for Marlin in this film, but it’s still a fun relationship to watch.
Also of note, the voice cast is excellent. Ellen Degeneres is obviously the stand-out, as she was in Finding Nemo. It’s funny because it rarely works when a supporting character from one film is given their own film, but you could argue Finding Dory stands toe-to-toe with the first one. And a lot of that has to do with Ellen’s portrayal of Dory. She is the heart of the film in a big way.
I feel like I could babble on about the themes of family and finding your inner strength, but again, it’s a kids film and it’s all in plain sight. There isn’t anything I said in this review that you won’t see for yourself. In short, the film has an enormous heart, a big emotional impact, lovable characters (Ed O’Neil’s Octopus ((Septopus)) is a stand-out new character), and a captivating adventure plot. Highly recommended.
Pixar’s recent critical cold streak (Cars 2, Brave, Monsters University) has seemingly come to an end with the high concept, internal conflict film, Inside Out.
Kids’ movies are usually critic-proof in terms of critical content, but I feel like Inside Out straddles the line between adult and kid friendly and offers something extra to think about.
The framework of the narrative is built around the personification of a little girl’s emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. The majority of the screentime is focused on these five as the young girl is faced with the transition of moving with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco. After the move we spend most of the time with Joy and Sadness, who become separated from the rest of the emotions. Do you see where this is headed? Because it’s very easy to spot early on. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with a simplistic theme because, again, this is a kid’s film.
There is a fairly meticulous construct that makes up the film’s idea of the brain, whose elements include core and normal memories, small islands erected to show interests and personality traits, a literal train of thought, a dream set that resembles a movie set, a memory dump where old memories fade away, and so on and so forth. And these areas are generally populated with cute little animated beings for the kids to enjoy.
This depiction of the brain is fairly accurate to how a physical construction of a brain might work if you combined an adult’s knowledge with a child’s imagination. Only, I wonder if populating this world with cute, colorful entities is enough for kids to make any sense of it. The part most kids will relate to is the part of the narrative where Joy and Sadness get lost and have to find their way back. It provides the “adventure home” narrative tension that appeals to a child’s cinematic tastes. However, I wonder if a child understands the metaphor attached to that struggle. You never lose those emotions, but sometimes they fall into the background during times of turmoil, which is the scenario this movie depicts. The film provides a scenario where Joy and Sadness are in danger of being lost forever, seemingly in order to keep the kids interested, but adults know this is an impossible outcome.
They present a colorful world with a very binary depiction of emotions. When things go wrong characters get sad, and when they don’t know how to deal with that they get angry. As an adult you know things rarely work that way. Emotions are complicated and often overlap with several other emotions at one time. I suppose this is where I take issue with the film, from an adult’s perspective.
The ideas presented in this film are dumbed down to make sense to a child, but I feel like if you asked a child to explain the inner workings of the mind based on the landscape they create in this film you’d get a very one-dimensional answer and not a complete understanding. Which is fine except why go through all the time and effort to create this rich world? Adults know it’s silly, and kids just enjoy the colors and humor.
So who is this movie for? Most adults will know there’s more to emotion and brain activity than this and kids will only attach themselves to the cute emotions and the various little beings that live in this girl’s mind.
This isn’t to say it’s a bad movie, I just don’t think it’s enough. It’s a high concept with a low return. Go see it with adults, or kids, because the conversation you have afterward is worth it.