In a world-wide aquatic playground filled with rambunctious slapstick, Dickensian sea creatures, astonishing visual beauty and relentless albeit implausible jeopardy, Pixar’s “Finding Dory” makes a rousing follow-up to that animation studio’s fifth feature, “Finding Nemo,” released in 2003.
The original film’s writer-director Andrew Stanton has returned to engineer a tale that should cut through generational divides to please all ages of viewers with a series of vaudevillian turns that provoke laughs and gasps in equal measure.
The animated film bows in two directions — towards the Disney tradition of family bonding and an anthropomorphic animal kingdom and towards Pixar’s brilliant imagining of alternative realities involving toys, superheroes or fish that turn the human world on its head.
Stanton, who co-wrote the script with Victoria Strouse and oversees production with co-director Angus MacLane, picks up the story about a year after the conclusion of “Nemo,” where orange clownfish Nemo (12-year-old Hayden Rolence) and dad Marlin (returning Albert Brooks) have befriended the blue tang Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a cheerfully handicapped fish.
Her handicap? Well, as she is prone to say every few minutes, Dory suffers from short-term memory loss. Which, of course, explains why she tells everyone this constantly.
While happily content in present company she knows she’s missing something and soon enough figures it out: her parents (Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton). Where did she mislay them?
So the movie isn’t so much about finding Dory as it’s about Dory’s odyssey to find her parents. If she could only remember where she lost them — and what they look like.
Convinced on the basis of no evidence whatsoever that they dwell half way across global seas off the coast of California, she drags Marlon and Nemo from Australia’s waters on an epic journey across the Pacific to the Marine Life Institute in Morro Bay (just a five hour or so drive from Pixar’s headquarters).
It’s a voyage filled with colorful sea life, the best of which (whom?) are a color-and-shape-changing octopus named Hank (wonderfully voiced by Ed O’Neill), an intensely near-sighted whale shark (Kaitlin Olson), a navigationally challenged beluga whale (Ty Burrell) and a couple of lay-about sea lions with whimsical British accents (Idris Elba and Dominic West).
The story at times, especially in a frantic third act, is a tad over plotted — which is why I said Stanton engineered rather than scripted the story — and relies somewhat on devices that feel far-fetched for even a Pixar alternate reality.
Little Dory may have short term memory but she possesses skills that defy understanding. The key one involves an ability to read signs in English. I know there’s a such a thing called a school of fish but are human linguistics on the curriculum?
The other is her uncanny possession of “fun facts” such as an octopus has three hearts. This comes as a great surprise to Hank the octopus and an even greater one to the viewer. That fish school really does get into higher education.
However, Stanton and company more than make up for this minor failing by constant invention and a sly wit that permeate oceans and fish tanks. This is an oceanic Lollapalooza so you just go with the flow — no, make that the riptide.
There is joy in every frame, which sends such a warm marine layer into the audience it’s too bad the film can’t be enjoyed while toasting marshmallows over a beach fire.
The voice cast is fabulous while the Pixar team has outdone itself in its character animation, layouts and ingenuous lighting.
You may never want to eat sushi again. Okay, that’s going too far.
Stay for the final credits though, which include two terrific songs and fabulous backgrounds plus, as a reward, an epilogue involving those sea lions as funny as the rest of the film.
Also, a six-minute Pixar short before the feature, “Piper,” about a baby beach bird, not only showcases upcoming Pixar talent, it astonishes with its photo-realism.
Opens: June 17, 2016 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production: Pixar Animation Studios
Voices: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Hayden Rolence, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Sloane Murray, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Bob Peterson, Kate McKinnon, Bill Hader, Sigourney Weaver
Director: Andrew Stanton
Co-director: Angus MacLane
Screenwriters: Andrew Stanton, Victoria Strouse
Story by: Andrew Stanton
Producer: Lindsey Collins
Executive producer: John Lasseter
Directors of photography: Jeremy Lasky (camera), Ian Megibben (lighting)
Production designer: Steve Pilcher
Music: Thomas Newman
Editor: Axel Geddes
PG rating, 97 minutes