Finding Dory: What Went Wrong? – Wisecrack Edition
If you’re going to make a sequel, try not to take 13 years to make it. If you take 13 years anyway, then at least don’t rewrite the whole thing at the last minute, right? Wrong. In this edition of What Went Wrong, we explore how late stage rewrites in Pixar’s Finding Dory led to some questionable narrative choices ,resulting in a rather underwhelming film.
Written by: David Radcliff
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Mark Potts
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon & Emily Dunbar
Finding Dory: What Went Wrong? – Wisecrack Edition
Hey, Wisecrack. Jared here. Okay, we’re about to do something a little risky, a little crazy, and maybe even a little sacrilegious: We’re criticizing Pixar. Because even though it’s brought us the tear-jerking joys of Inside Out, Wall-E, and the Toy Story saga, its genius is not entirely above some sloppy storytelling. Turns out no studio can resist the allure of a cash-grabby sequel, and that’s kind of what 2016’s Finding Dory felt like to us. It just didn’t seem as emotionally resonant as Pixar’s best work, and — being the obsessive nerds that we are, here at Wisecrack — we had to ask ourselves, “why?” It’s worth mentioning here that, according to the Guardian, FINDING DORY underwent massive rewrites. Were those rewrites to blame for our dissatisfaction with the movie? Is FINDING DORY a lesser film than FINDING NEMO? Is this simply a case of sequel-itis? Are we just over fish stories? Let’s filet this thing and find out.
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition of Finding Dory: What Went Wrong? And, as always, spoilers ahead.
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Finding Dory comes up short in at least four key areas where FINDING NEMO excels. For the sake of clarity, let’s categorize these problems as: 1) Clouded emotional investment, 2) shaky narrative structure, 3) passive heroism, 4) purposeless entourage. To be fair, these issues are almost impossible to separate from one another, so there will inevitably be some overlap. But here we go, anyway… First: the question of emotional investment. A key objective of any screenplay is to get the audience to care deeply about the protagonist a goal that’s often achieved by first getting us to care about whatever our protagonist most values and/or needs. Maybe the protagonist is focused on scoring an internship…or on going the distance in the boxing ring…or on breaking free of a suffocating life. Whatever the case, in most strong screenplays, that desire is established early. It’s singular. It’s powerful. And it generates our empathy.
In FINDING NEMO and FINDING DORY, the protagonists’ goals are blatantly similar. In the first film, Marlin searches for his kidnapped son; in the second, Dory searches for the parents she hazily remembers. Although there’s nothing wrong with leaning on the trope of the missing family member– It works for Liam Neeson. Finding Nemo and Finding Dory unfortunately have different attitudes towards the magnitude of loss. That’s because only one of these films– offers us a baseline before it rips a loved one away. And it’s that baseline that creates emotional connection between us, the protagonist, and the protagonist’s need. In other words, even though the bulk of Finding Nemo keeps Marlin and Nemo apart, it first offers a sense of what these family members mean to one another. As early as the first minute of Finding Nemo, we’re told what Marlin values more than anything else in the world: “These are our kids! They deserve the best!”
And Marlin proves that value system through his actions: In the film’s baseline moments, we see Marlin protect his son, then tease his son, then prepare his son for school, then bring his son to school, and then lecture his son. We have a sense of history. So when Nemo gets kidnapped 15 minutes into the film, we, like Marlin, have loved, and we have lost. We are invested. Finding Dory offers no such baseline, so it never offers the gut punch delivered by its predecessor. In fact, Dory loses her parents within the five minutes of Finding Dory. In the opening scene of the film, Dory, even to her own parents, is positioned as something of a liability. A cute little goof. Shortly thereafter, like bubbles in a bathtub, her parents vanish. How much can we really be expected to pour our emotions into losing characters we never knew?
If Finding Dory can’t get much mileage out of the parent-child bond that energized Finding Nemo, then what is the central relationship here? Where do we invest our empathy? You might guess that we feed into the bond between Marlin and Dory. After all, they did spend a whole movie together. They’re probably totally buds now, right? Not really. Seems the arc of personal growth that Marlin and Dory experienced in Finding Nemo has reverted here, with Dory now being viewed as a nuisance by pretty much everyone. Sadly, it isn’t until Dory is separated from the relationships she formed in the first film that we’re introduced to what is supposed to be her source of support in this movie: the, uh, bond– between Dory and Hank, a curmudgeonly octopus who wants only to exploit Dory for the transport tag attached to her fin.
And, yeah, that’s pretty much it. That’s the nature of their friendship. Heartwarming, right? The emotionally deficient relationship between Hank and Dory is almost entirely transactional and deceitful, which doubles down on the film’s empathy gap. But later, FINDING DORY hastily tries to switch gears, and that brings us to our second point… 2) Shaky Narrative Structure. Take a look at most memorable films, and you’ll find the protagonist making a key decision right at the center of the story. It’s a moment that reframes the protagonist’s objectives and tests his or her resolve. Some refer to this as the film’s “midpoint shift. It’s no coincidence that the halfway mark is often a major moment of self-reflection for the protagonist; a turning point in his or her journey… So what happens halfway through FINDING DORY? Well, Hank reveals he has a soft spot for that loopy blue fish…but where did this sentiment come from?
It’s surely not earned by any particular actions or moments in the film, itself, because Hank and Dory are never really a team –and, unlike Dory and Marlin, they’re never shown really enjoying their adventure. And, hey, come to think of it, Hank isn’t even the protagonist here! In any case, since Dory and Hank have almost no moments of genuine connection within the first half of Finding Dory, Hank’s change of heart towards Dory, midway through the film, can’t help but feel unearned. Contrast this with the realization Marlin experiences at the middle of Finding Nemo.
Here, Marlin begins to recognize the error of his overprotective parenting style. And this realization is a direct result of his control-freak behavior nearly getting Dory killed. Throughout Finding Nemo, this midpoint shift and other character-revealing moments are directly motivated by cause and effect. Nemo is motivated to put his life in jeopardy because he learns his dad is heroic. Marlin is motivated to team with Dory because he realizes Dory can read. Later, Marlin is motivated to separate himself from Dory because he thinks his son is dead. In Finding Dory, however, key moments in the story, like Hank’s change of heart towards Dory, are largely motivated by convenience and necessity. They are simply what needs to happen to move characters from point A to point B. Later, Dory refers to Hank as.
Even though evidence of any such sweetness is scarce at best. But, hey, in this movie, being an ass is pretty easily forgiven, as long as you pay lip service to some sort of growth. Deep into Finding Dory, Marlin tells Dory. “Because ever since I met you, you’ve shown me how to do stuff I’ve never dreamed of doing. Crazy things.” But even this sentiment, too, seems unearned, because it leverages moments from the first film — in which Dory and Marlin adventured and grew closer together, rather than from this sequel, in which they are either separated from each other or annoyed. Nevertheless, this moment is meant to play as a moment of self-awareness and maturity from Marlin. Which raises the question: what is Dory’s key moment of self-awareness in Finding Dory?
Wow. You’ve got to wait until the movie is nearly over to find out! And this illustrates FINDING DORY’s third setback. Passive Heroism. For much of the film’s running time Dory operates as a passive protagonist. one who responds to events rather than create opportunities. Some of this tendency is due to her all-too-convenient memory flashes– which handily take the story wherever the screenwriters need it to go. These flashes, and even the occasional undertow, are driven more by chance and proximity than as a result of personal effort orgrowth. Although, sometimes it’s almost as if the film is suggesting Dory’s disability can be willed way. This perspective seems, um, fishy at best. And it doesn’t leave Dory with many opportunities to demonstrate her ingenuity and development. Events often happen to Dory, rather than because of her, and that’s never a recipe for great storytelling. Of course, another cause of Dory’s passivity is the nature of the film’s actual environment. After the film’s first twenty minutes, Dory quite literally becomes a fish out of water, a status which restricts her movements to the whims of other characters. How much can we expect our protagonist to be the master of her own fate when she’s being carried around in coffee pots, baby buggies, or in a bucket that’s labeled “Destiny”? By trading the thrilling blue ocean of the first film for the claustrophobic, human-centric clinical spaces of Finding Dory, Pixar ultimately hamstrings the scope of the story it’s able to tell, and the degree to which its protagonist can help tell it.
Dory, then, isn’t a driver of her own story, she’s a passenger -a passive responder to triggered memories, an odd partnership, and, very often, blind luck. But at least her personal motivation remains relatively clear. She wants to find her parents. And so, if we’re willing to buy into the premise of the film, we must simply want to find them, too. Even though Dory’s desire to see her family is very conveniently triggered by the school of fish saying the word it’s true that Dory’s ultimate objective is never in doubt. But the same can’t always be said for Marlin in this film. And it’s even less clear for Nemo, who, at this point, seems in desperate need of Child Protective Services. And this leads us to… The Purposeless Entourage.
I’ll pause here, to ask a simple but important question: why does Finding Dory involve all three of these fish? And does Nemo’s involvement actually negatively impact our feelings about Dory and Marlin? That’s right – Marlin, having just a year earlier crossed the perilous ocean to save his only surviving child, now agrees to drag that same child with him to guide Dory all the way across the ocean again simply because: “How can you be talking about the view when I remember my family?”
Um, okay. But this springs from the studio’s need for a sequel, not from clear character behavior. Ultimately, Finding Dory commits the sin of asking Marlin and Nemo to undermine so much of what made Finding Nemo powerful. After all of the emotional investment we as an audience made in Nemo’s recovery in Finding Nemo, Finding Dory asks us to believe that Marlin, responsible father extraordinaire, is willing to risk his own son’s life on the basis of Dory’s hunch about her parents she hasn’t seen in years. And no, I’m not being hyperbolic: Nemo really, seriously almost dies– I mean, couldn’t Marlin find a babysitter? Why is Nemo part of this new adventure? Why does Dory, who presumably cares about Nemo’s safety, agree to pull him along on a dangerous mission to serve her own personal agenda? The film mostly bypasses these questions, and — if we are to enjoy it — so must we. But we should all take a moment to at least recognize the weirdness of ending a fish movie with a car chase on the freeway. And, hey, look at that! Dory’s a passenger again. In her own movie. Thanks for watching guys. Peace.