There are days when I think Finding Nemo might just be Pixar’s best movie. Funny, heartbreaking and filled with colorful characters and breathtaking animation, it’s a – forgive me – high-water mark for what has been the best film studio for nearly two decades. So there’s bound to be at least some drop-off for this sequel. (Only Toy Story 2 and 3 can claim equality or supremacy to the original.)
Thankfully, the animation is the best Pixar has yet produced, and the cast brings an emotional heft to their characters that is all but absent in most animated films – including some of Pixar’s lesser efforts. As the title implies, this time it’s Dory who’s caught, with Marlin and Nemo teaming up to rescue her from the Marine Life Institute in California.
Aiding in Dory’s escape are an octopus – make that a septopus – and a beluga whale, both voiced by Modern Family alumni. (Ed O’Neill makes a Hank a grump with a serious soft side, while Ty Burrell steals the show as usual with a mix of smarm and reluctance.) As with Finding Nemo, the new homes aren’t prisons per se, just a tragic separation from the people they love the most.
At times, this does feel like a corporately packaged re-tread. But by focusing so deeply on the pain beneath Dory’s happy-go-lucky exterior, the film still packs an emotional wallop. Being separated from her parents (Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton) and suffering from short-term memory loss has taken a toll on her, and her quest to find them feels totally justified from a narrative perspective. This would have been a more powerful movie had it stayed in that melancholy zone. Instead, this is a movie with a climax that features Hank the Septopus driving an 18-wheeler. Because, y’know, the kids.
Ultimately, this is not top-shelf Pixar, but it’s very close. We’ll never stop getting sequels and reboots, but if they can all be this good, we won’t have to be so worried about the future.