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Losing Dory?

Finding Dory“Finding Dory” (2016). I went to this film with high expectations. After all, my 13-year-old son exclaimed that his best friend declared, “It was the best movie, EVER!” Plus, as a Pixar fan, I was happy to go. The film centers on Dory, the little blue fish with memory issues, who is trying to get home. The film repeatedly cuts to Dory’s early life (memory flashes) with her mom and dad, causing her to long for home. With the help of familiar friends (Marlin, Nemo, Crush), the adventure begins. Filled with typical near-death encounters and several new characters (Destiny, Bailey, and Hank), we begin to sense Dory’s inner struggle with her disability. This is not the free-spirited Dory from “Finding Nemo” (2003). Rather she’s filled with self-doubt and even guilt. Despite this more complex Dory, I was, however, rather quickly underwhelmed. I had the very real feeling of “seeing it all before.” I could not engage with the film emotionally. Nor did the warp-like turtle ride on the “EAC” (or other action scenes) engage my gut. The three responses I just described are not personal preferences. They come from filmmaker, author, Jon Boorstin. In his book, Making Movies Work: Thinking Like A Filmmaker, Boorstin highlights these responses as: (1) the Voyeur’s eye (believability), (2) the vicarious eye (emotional engagement), and (3) the visceral eye (gut feeling). Missing on just one can hurt a film. “Finding Dory,” on the whole, missed on all three. Although believable, it wasn’t fresh (I felt as if I’d seen it all before). And it didn’t grab my heart or my gut. Not that these elements weren’t present throughout the film, but they underwhelmed.

As author and professor, Dr. Kutter Callaway notes in a lecture at Fuller Theological Seminary, “Expectations play a role.” That is, what we bring to a film can and will affect what we see. Perhaps my expectations were too high. However, one would think that after thirteen years, we’d see something fresh in this sequel. Two highlights do stand out. The first was a short Pixar film prior to the actual film called, “Piper.” For six minutes we witnessed the glory of Pixar and what it can achieve with music, image and sound effects (no words). “Piper” alone is worth the ticket price – but I won’t spoil anything. The other is “Hank.” Hank is a seven-legged octopus who’s grumpy and just wants to be left alone. When he meets Dory he sees his ticket (tag) out of the hell that he “thinks” he’s in. A friendship develops. Hank is transformed. Despite his thick skin, he’s all heart – three hearts actually. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Hank again, e.g., “Finding Hank” (2029). If I had to put my finger on another issue with this film, it would be the music. In Pixar’s “Up” (2009), I was transported and engaged by the waltz-like montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together. I found nothing similar in “Finding Dory.” Sure, there was the typical sad string orchestration and contrasts to darker waters during the difficult moments, but they simply didn’t engage. Even the cuts to silence lacked the emotional impact that the filmmakers were likely shooting for (such as when Dory was all alone, again). In Callaway’s book, Scoring Transcendence, he talks about how music allows us “interpretive access” to a film. That is, it helps us engage with the “film’s tone or mood, the inner workings of a character’s psychology, and even the filmgoer’s empathic bond” with the story and the characters. “Finding Dory” missed this very big mark. Moreover, the character’s voices compared to the original lacked the same tonal spirit that so enlivened their characters.

In terms of cultural content, this movie was filled with some rather striking characters and lines. For example, Bailey, the beluga whale with a psychosomatic disorder, sounded a lot like the stereotypical homosexual who now appears regularly on sitcoms. If this is accurate, what is this saying given it’s a kid’s movie? When Marlin and Nemo are stuck in a novelty fish tank, Marlin asks, “What would Dory do?” This obvious reference to WWJD – What would Jesus do? (circa 1990s) – reflects a cultural theme that reflects poorly on Christians today given the shallowness of its use. Moreover, Dory states, “The best things happen by chance.” That’s a theologically loaded statement. How do I explain to my kid on the car ride home the big questions of life? Hey Dad, why are we here? Well son, according to Dory, “chance.” There is no God. No creator. It’s all chance. Against this backdrop, the film also raises the question, who are you. Or, more specifically, what makes you who you are? For the film, there seems to be a bit of a juxtaposition on this question. On the one hand, family and a communal living arrangement with Mom, Dad, and friends seems to be where Dory “finds” herself. On the other hand, there’s a powerful individualism in this film. The potential romance  (“I look at you and I’m home”) between Dory and Marlin in “Finding Nemo” is gone. Dory sleeps solo. Moreover, in the final scene overlooking the drop off (spoiler alert), Dory says, “I did it.” Despite the community of family and friends that have helped her on her multiple adventures (especially given her disability), the film closed emphasizing an individual accomplishment. Perhaps the juxtaposition was intentional, reflecting the cultural ambiguities around our desire for independence versus our need for people. Or, perhaps Pixar is merely reflecting broader cultural values to maximize profit. Perhaps both. In the middle of all this ambiguity and despite the search for meaning in the film, have we lost Dory?

What do you think?

Thanks for reading,
~ Ted

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