Finding Dory review: “like the original, only better”

Pixar's follow-up to Finding Nemo has all of the heart – and more of the smarts – as the absent-minded blue tang fish feels the call of home

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★★★★★

Pixar has made so many classic animated features since 1995’s original Toy Story, that it’s difficult to keep in mind the sheer scope of its achievement.

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Critics tend to pick out the ones that display the most mould-breaking creativity, like Inside Out or Wall-E, and, of course, it’s hard to argue with the Toy Story trilogy, with its all-conquering combination of childlike joy and adult anxiety, as the very peak of the studio’s output.

Still, there’s always been something special about 2003’s Finding Nemo, not just in the sheer jollity and cuteness of its undersea kingdom, but the real heart that moves the story along, transforming it from a deeply affecting drama about a single parent separated from his only son, into a wholly uplifting paean to self-reliance.

In the end, Nemo truly is the little clownfish that could, and his ultimate survival chimes with different generations – providing inspiration for kids, reassurance for parents.

Given that Finding Nemo is so satisfying in and of itself, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether anyone actually needed a sequel. Thirteen years on however, writer/director Andrew Stanton has returned to the material because he’s lots more to tell us about Dory, the plucky blue tang fish who helped Nemo’s stressed-out dad scour the oceans for his missing son. Where did she come from? What about her folks?

Finding Dory brings her an origin story of her very own, the first step of which is for her to remember that she actually had a mum and dad.

That’s no mean feat for a fish whose short-term memory issues render her unable to retain new information for more than a few seconds, but a year on from the events of the first film, something deep inside sends her venturing across the Pacific towards the California coast, where fragments of recollection tell her she grew up.

That’s quite an odyssey to undertake, so plucky Nemo and worrywart Marlon tag along for support – none of them knowing whether Dory’s parents are even still alive. But if Finding Nemo taught us anything, it’s that family is… well, family.

It’s when the journey begins that the film really shows off the technological advances in the years since its predecessor.

The visual palette is now so much richer, each passing moment bringing not only wonderfully immersive, micro-detailed sub-aquatic vistas, but the ambition to venture forth on land when the quest takes the story to a marine-life tourist attraction that proves an ordeal for the sea creatures who end up there.

There’s a certain veiled criticism here aimed at conservation projects that don’t necessarily live up to their eco-friendly promises, but the location is also a source for engaging new characters, including a curmudgeonly octopus with chameleon-like powers to blend in with his environment, two English-accented sea lions vigorously guarding their sunny lounging spot on an exposed rock, and an energetic yet myopic whale shark who keeps bumping into things.

So, yes, there’s a certain amount of knockabout action, leading to an expansive climactic chase which shows Stanton’s ambition and expertise, both in what he can put on screen and how he can use the camera to get the most out of it. Kids will be bouncing in their seats at this point.

Yet, for all the traditional Pixar expertise at providing chuckle fodder for littl’uns and grown-ups alike – as in Finding Nemo – it’s ultimately the movie’s sheer heart and soul that carries the day.

While Dory sets out on an against-the-odds mission to retrace where she’s come from, what she really discovers is herself.

Watching a very little fish learning to triumph over the disability that has thus far defined her, and trust in her own instincts, sprinkles genuine tears amid the abundant laughter, thanks in no small part to Ellen DeGeneres’s endlessly sensitive and enthusiastic vocal performance.

All in all, Finding Dory is exactly what a great sequel should be – like the original, only better.

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Finding Dory is in cinemas from 29 July