It’s due time we take the term “Disney magic” and replace “Disney” with “Pixar.”
To be fair, Disney has regained some its magical touch with the studio’s live-action remakes of Cinderella and The Jungle Book, but the quality control and emotional resonance Pixar has maintained across nearly its entire filmography is nothing short of stunning. And in all honesty, I was convinced the brand new Pixar film, Finding Dory, would be another notch against the studio’s record, not in favor of it.
Boy, was I wrong. (Keep reading to find out why–spoiler free!)
First, I’ll detail a pseudo-brief history of my relationship with Pixar. I grew up seeing A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2 in theaters. I particularly loved Monsters, Inc. as a child, and a VHS copy of the original Toy Story received plenty of playtime in my household. My oldest vivid memory I have of seeing a Pixar film in theaters was when, on the last day of 5th grade, my mom pulled me out of class early so we could go see Finding Nemo. Ironically, I wasn’t a huge fan of Nemo upon its release, and I soon found it extremely tiresome that a bunch of my friends wanted to keep watching Nemo at birthday parties and the like. Nevertheless, I was a true fan of the brand. Pixar never disappointed me until the first Cars, an overlong and underwhelming film that cemented my disliking of Larry the Cable Guy and during which I laughed once. I’m literally telling you, one of the most specific memories I have of moviegoing experiences at that age was letting laughter out of my mouth at only one joke in that entire film. Even then, I would adamantly oppose/correct anyone who dared to confuse Meet the Robinsons as Pixar-made.
As I entered high school and became a more discerning film fan and critic, Toy Story 2 would rank on my list of favorite/greatest films of all time, alongside Singin’ in the Rain, Young Frankenstein, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. (Note: this list has since changed drastically.) My four years of high school would also perfectly align with what I lovingly refer to as The Golden Years of Pixar, the years from 2007-2010 when the studio released what I’d argue to be Pixar’s greatest artistic achievements: Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, and the long overdue Toy Story 3. That meant my peers and I were the lucky ones graduating high school at the exact same time as the threequel’s 18-year-old Andy. It was also thanks to this string of films that I finally came to appreciate Finding Nemo, specifically for how it functioned as a precursor to Up and WALL-E. Concerning the former, Nemo established the format of beginning the movie with a family tragedy, leading to an older, begrudging character fulfilling a mission with the help of an unwanted, younger and happier character. The latter was actually director Andrew Stanton’s direct follow-up to Nemo, which I learned from watching the DVD commentary for WALL-E; Stanton discussed how, after figuring out how to make CGI simulate swimming underwater with his first film, he wanted to make a movie that could realistically simulate outer space. I distinctly remember, mere weeks after listening to that director commentary, sitting in an Outback Steakhouse with my family where Finding Nemo was playing on the television screen above us. With the sound turned off, I sat in amazement as I beheld the animation and the mastery in which the artists at Pixar recreated the texture, movements, and light dimensions of the ocean.
After seeing Toy Story 3 a total of six times–a wonderful perk of working at a movie theater–I would go the next five years without seeing a Pixar film in theaters. I evaded Cars 2 like the plague and had little interest in seeing Brave or Monsters University. (As a matter of fact, I didn’t go to the theaters at all those two summers; to this day I haven’t seen Brave, but I eventually saw University and found it to be a pleasant delight, if not completely pointless.) The five-year draught finally ended in 2015, the first time Pixar ever released two films in the same year: Inside Out (the Academy Award winner, which I saw five times in theaters…not for free) and The Good Dinosaur (which I regrettably only saw once and seem to have liked more than the average viewer/critic). Both films made me laugh and cry, albeit to widely varying degrees, e.g., two teardrops for one, two ponds for the other. I wrote about both of these films in my top 15 films of 2015 list; although The Good Dinosaur was agreeably second-rate Pixar, merely making my list’s honorable mentions, I had full confidence Good would be better than the following year’s Finding Dory.
The factors were easily in favor of my unfavorable prediction. With no successful Pixar sequels outside of the Toy Story trilogy, the entire premise of Dory looked to be making the same fatal mistake as Cars 2, the only Pixar film with a “rotten” score on the site Rotten Tomatoes: namely, to turn the original’s quirky sidekick into the sequel’s protagonist. Sure, Dory’s as better than Mater as the films they’re from, but handing off the emotional and narrative reins from one character to another is risky business. No one’s wanting a WALL-E 2 starring the cockroach or a Toy Story 4 starring Rex. The trailers for Finding Dory also looked peculiarly similar to the original, such as the unlikely return of Crush and the turtle gang, or Dory winding up in a fish tank and making new friends just as Nemo had. Then there was the troubling in-production announcement that Andrew Stanton had a co-director, Angus MacLane, working with him. That’s not to mention the mid-production announcement back in 2013 that, following the cultural outrage caused by the documentary Blackfish, Pixar was compelled to rewrite the sequel’s ending, removing the original concept where some main characters were to be left in a Sea World-styled marine park.
Now, I’ll explain why all my plausible predictions about this wonderful, hilarious, worthy sequel are entirely wrong. As it turns out, the protagonist-swap of this film is less Lightning McQueen and Mater, more Buzz and Woody. (To be clear, not only is Mater not a strong enough character to carry a film, neither is Lightning McQueen. That’s why 2017’s Cars 3 is doomed to fail.) Admittedly, Woody has never not been his films’ main character, but Toy Story 2 also had plenty of sequences that allowed Buzz to be the lead. Similarly, the focus on Dory finding her parents doesn’t withhold this film from sharing narrative perspective and character development between Dory and Marlin. As slight as it might be for such a neatly 90-minute film, as many characters as possible are given some workable character development. Without giving any plot points away, there’s one scene in particular that shows how authentic the writers’ intentions were with the characters and the emotions of this film. This one pivotal scene could have easily been milked for greater emotional impact (a.k.a. the scene could have easily been a Kleenex-drenched weeper), but instead, the filmmakers chose to cut short the sadness and trade it for jubilant joy, allowing viewers to be swept into a victorious catharsis rather then manipulated into tears.
That brings us to my second worrisome prediction: a plot line uncomfortably copied-and-pasted from the original. Yes, the similarities are there. The plot points very well might carry a sense of déjà vu strong enough to damage your own viewing experience, as has been the case for some of my friends, as well as the most commonplace complaint I’ve seen from film critics. Perhaps it helped to go into this film expecting easy comparisons, meaning when they came up, they didn’t phase me one bit. To this end, my pessimism worked to my benefit. Plus, it’s always nice when lowered expectations yield heightened satisfaction.
By the film’s conclusion, though, I’d argue there are enough differences and nuances to make a search for similarities feel like nitpicking. It reminds me of Toy Story 3, easily one of the most acclaimed works in the Pixar pantheon, yet upon closer examination it’s really just 2 Redux. There are wildly comparable plot points between the second and third films, except Buzz and Woody’s roles are flipped. The whole debacle also recalls last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Everyone and his brother were complaining about the long-awaited sequel’s similarities to A New Hope, with some people despising the new film for that reason alone. Yet I believe there’s a purpose to both films following such nostalgic plots: by presenting a storyline that’s familiar to viewers, the filmmakers are able to place a focus on what matters more than the plot. The characters. Characters matter most, a fact neither The Force Awakens nor Finding Dory ever forget.
As for the inclusion of co-director Angus MacLane, some research shows that his involvement isn’t a problem at all. In fact, most Pixar films have had co-directors, even though some of this information was released long after-the-fact. (Reasons for that information being released seems to stem from the controversy surrounding Bob Peterson’s status with the films Up and The Good Dinosaur.) This SlashFilm article does a great job explaining what co-directors do, specifically MacLane, who was brought onto the job for Dory back in 2012. According to the article, a Pixar co-director functions as the director’s “clone” when necessary while also developing his/her own skills and preparing for possibly directing a feature.
Take Lee Unkrich, for example. He worked as the unofficial co-director of Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo before getting to single-handedly helm Toy Story 3. Now he’s working on an original film, Coco, that I’m sure will be outstanding. And based on his work in Finding Dory, Angus MacLane (who helped animate ten Pixar films beginning with A Bug’s Life and directed the shorts BURN-E, Small Fry and Toy Story of Terror!) should be on his way to a bright future as well.
As for the Blackfish-prompted changes to the film, Dory has such an out-of-left-field, unrealistic and absolutely hysterical climax that I can only imagine its conception came from the frantic gathering of writers asking, “How do we rewrite the ending of this film in one day?” The results are exhilarating. The climax is the highlight of the film for anyone seeking beautiful animation, hearty laughs, and a worthwhile use of the suspension of disbelief that the film industry was built upon.
If I may be allotted the time to sprinkle a little bit more praise upon this film, I can honestly say that, even though the quality of Finding Dory lands somewhere between the beautiful but simple Good Dinosaur and the emotionally wrecking Inside Out, I was as pleased with my first viewing of Dory as I was the first time seeing Inside Out a year ago. I would be amiss to not mention how fantastic the voice work is, especially that of Ellen DeGeneres. The always-beautiful, never-obtrusive score is also a highlight, making Thomas Newman nearly as dependable a composer as Pixar favorites Michael Giacchino and Thomas’ own cousin Randy Newman. The animation approaches photorealism without ever outclassing the 2003 original by too far a margin. The new characters are all winning, in particular the octopus Hank. The plot wastes no time in getting started, but the well-calculated pacing gives ample space to the many jokes and the adorable flashbacks to Dory’s childhood. We also get to see a far greater amount of interactions between Marlin and Nemo this time around, which alone are worth the price of admission–even those 3-D surcharges. Due to time constraints, I was forced to see a 3-D showing against my will. With the 3-D glasses sitting awkwardly over my regular seeing glasses, I occasionally felt that the depth perception was messed up for me, but otherwise the third dimension added an extra layer of wonder to the visuals, making the feat of animation even more incredible.
Speaking of surcharges, I read one critical review warning ticket-buyers that we are entering “Pixar’s cash-grab years.” I would love to argue against this point, using some evidence from Creativity, Inc. Released in 2014, Creativity, Inc. is an equally informative and entertaining non-fiction book on business management, written by Pixar President and Co-Founder Ed Catmull. In his book, Catmull explains why so many sequels are appearing on the books. Dory is the first of many, with sequels to Cars, Toy Story, and The Incredibles currently in production. Accordingly to Catmull, Pixar were on an unrealistic hot streak. Imagine a baseball game where a team bats twelve home runs in a row–that’s what it was like for every single one of Pixar’s films to debut at the top of the box office, as well as making massive profits both domestically and globally. Each time the studio released a new franchise, it was making a gamble; the success of some films, from a rat in the kitchen to a robot who can’t talk, was surprising to say the least. Catmull and his team accordingly devised a plan to prepare for imminent failure: release an original film every year and a sequel every other year. This would give the studio a safety net of nearly guaranteed financial successes, thus allotting the artists behind original films the space they need to take risks and innovate. So is Finding Dory a cash-grab? Yes and no. A better term would be a “low-risk investment.” But there’s an artistic element at work, too. Pixar films take 3-4 years each to make, and after investing so much time creating these worlds and characters, most directors miss them and love the idea of returning someday. These movies are labors of love, with years passing in between most sequels because the filmmakers at Pixar want to ensure they only make the stories that need to be told. These “safer” movies actually protect the artistry of Pixar, not belittle it.
Case and point? The Good Dinosaur, which was essentially recreated mid-production after getting delayed a year. Not only did Pixar’s 16th feature become the studio’s first to never hit #1 on the box office, it also became Pixar’s first movie not to turn a profit. The domestic gross fell somewhere between $50-75 million beneath budget, and the worldwide gross (I think) failed to make up for the rest of the film’s budget, if we include marketing and merchandising costs. I believe the struggles making this film tied into the 2013 closing of Pixar’s Canada office, forcing the studio to lay off, if I’m not mistaken, a few hundred employees. Altogether, The Good Dinosaur made less money than 1998’s A Bug’s Life, with nearly two decades of price inflation between them.
Current estimates say that Finding Dory should, indeed, set the new box office record for highest opening weekend for an animated film. It seems this sequel was a safe bet and then some. I for one, after planning on either hating it or refusing to see it, am very happy this film exists. (It’s so funny looking back and remembering how I’d had identically cynical and fearful thoughts about Toy Story 3, positive that it would tarnish the legacy of the first films. I’m still trying to hold back those same thoughts concerning the fourth film.) If all these reasons aren’t enough to make anyone appreciate what Pixar has accomplished, I’ll give one final thought: Finding Dory presents a main character, as well as many side characters, who are able to succeed not in spite of their flaws but because of their flaws. There are some things we can change about ourselves but some things we can’t, so let’s embrace what we must. There might be a message of “self-actualization” hidden in this film that’s dangerously unnecessary for a society that’s already drunk on the idea that everything you need is inside of you. However, what we also see here is a fable that beautifully displays how to lovingly and effectively parent a disabled child or befriend a physically- or mentally-challenged person. And in a society growing more intent on aborting babies with predictable disabilities, I say, bring on this message. We need it.
Thank you, Dory.
Thank you, Pixar.