Returning after almost thirteen years, you'd be forgiven for thinking Finding Dory was just an excuse to cash in on the endless amount of goodwill that's out there for the original. Thankfully, Finding Dory isn't that. Instead, you get a sequel worthy of its name and just as intelligent, funny and beautiful as the original.
When Finding Nemo arrived back in 2003, there really wasn't anything like it. It was fresh, unique, stunningly realised and had far more wit and humour than you'd expect from an animated comedy at the time. Fast forward to sixteen years later, these sorts of high-standard animated comedies have become a lot more commonplace. While Toy Story and Finding Nemo blazed the trail, it's easy to think that Finding Dory is Pixar returning to the well because there's a lack of creativity.
The film opens one year after the events of Finding Nemo and finds Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) suddenly able to remember parts of her childhood that she'd long since forgotten. Specifically, Dory recalls the image of her parents - voiced by the inimitable Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton - and sets out on a desperate quest to find them. In doing so, Dory becomes separated from Marlon and Nemo (Al Brooks and Hayden Rolence) and winds up in the Marine Life Institute. There, Dory meets a number of characters that form the basis of the film - including a short-sighted whale voiced by It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia's Kaitlin Olson, a cranky octopus who has personal issues voiced by Ed O'Neill and a neurotic / hypochondriac beluga whale voiced by Modern Family's Ty Burrell.
As with both Finding Nemo and any of Pixar's films, the plot isn't the real driving force - it's the explorations of the character, how they interact with each other and what makes them tick that really drives it along. Dory's plight of short-term memory loss is a stand-in for anyone's who suffered from a disability, be it dyslexia, speech impediment, whatever. What Finding Dory focuses on is how we, as individuals, take our problems - whatever they may be - and work with them. Throughout the film, Dory's disability hinders her from moving forward and it's only when she acknowledges it and works around it that she begins to see that it doesn't have to hold her back. The same is true with Kaitlin Olson, Ty Burrell and Ed O'Neill's characters - each have their own crutch which keeps them in place and once they free themselves, they move forward.
That's what makes Andrew Stanton and Pixar one of the greatest animated storytellers out there; that ability to shape a real message inside of a very funny, funny story. Like Finding Nemo, there's more than a few scene-stealers when it comes to the comedy aspects. Idris Elba and Dominic West have a blink-and-you'll-miss-it role as two sealions who help Marlon and Nemo break into the Marine Life Institute whilst Sigourney Weaver plays... well... Sigourney Weaver in what's undoubtedly one of the best cameos of the year. Moreso than Finding Nemo, Finding Dory works with more dramatic setpieces than it does with emotional ones. That's not to say that the film doesn't expertly tug at the correct muscle to have you a blubbering mess. It does, particularly in one final scene involving shells. However, the one complaint you could legitimately level against Finding Dory is that it doesn't have the same gut-punch impact that Finding Nemo had when you first saw it. It might simply be because Finding Nemo was such a perfect and complete film that it's impossible to try and top it. All you can do is just plough your own furrow and try something different.
On that point, Finding Dory works. It is different enough from Finding Nemo that it can be considered a honest attempt at a sequel, something that Pixar didn't really grapple correctly with on Monsters University. Here, it all has the emotional texture and beauty that you'd expect and all the warmth and humour we know and love.