Finding Nemo came out all the way back in 2003. It’s hard to believe so much time has gone by — right now, there’s a whole generation of kids and teenagers who grew up watching this film. And rightly so. As with everything else Pixar released within that time period, the film was heralded as an instant classic, with themes and jokes and iconography that are still catchy and appealing to all ages all these years later.

Which is probably why Pixar waited this long to attempt a sequel. And why they’re so squeamish about sequels in general.

I know that Disney and Pixar have made sequels and spin-offs for Cars, but I think we all know that it was more for merchandise sales. There’s nobody who really loves that movie or its characters, not like so many filmgoers of all ages love The IncrediblesUp, or any of the other treasured films made by Pixar in its prime. A whole generation of kids have grown up with Pixar’s movies, which means that every one of those films has a huge legacy for any sequel to try and live up to.

This means that the prospect of a Pixar sequel is extremely high-risk/high-reward. There’s a very high bar to clear, but when the effort pays off — as it did with Toy Story 2 and 3 — it taps into nostalgia in a way that pays off HUGE. And when an effort falls short — *coughMonstersUniversitycough* — the resulting film is quickly swept under the rug like it never happened.

Luckily, I’m glad to say that while Finding Dory doesn’t come anywhere near the triumphant heights of the Toy Story sequels, the film does justify its existence as a worthy continuation of the original story. And it does so in way that’s really kind of genius: Trying something new.

Most other sequels might be lazy enough to take the previous film’s most popular running gags and comic relief characters and run them into the ground, but this film pretty much does the exact opposite. The vegetarian sharks only get a passing mention. John Ratzenberger’s school of fish is omitted entirely. The seagulls only get a brief passing cameo. The Wallaby Way gang from Dr. P. Sherman’s tank doesn’t show up until all the way after the credits. Crush and Mr. Ray (still respectively voiced by director/co-writer Andrew Stanton and Bob Peterson) both play crucial roles in the plot, but they still get maybe three minutes of screen time apiece.

(Side note: Naturally, Squirt appears alongside his father, with Bennett Dammann taking over for the original film’s Nicholas Bird.)

Also, while the previous film took place somewhere in the Australian vicinity, the bulk of this movie is set in a Californian aquarium/marine wildlife reserve clear on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. This changes everything. The setting couldn’t possibly be more different from the open ocean of the previous film, and the film’s setting is so different that the structure must also be entirely different. More to the point, there’s a whole new cast of supporting characters with their own special quirks.

Highlights include a pair of friendly yet territorial sea lions played by Idris Elba and Dominic West (and anyone who’s seen “The Wire” must be laughing their asses off at that casting). There’s also Destiny (Kaitlin Olson, representing PDX!), a sociable yet vision-impaired whale, alongside a hypochondriac beluga named Bailey (Ty Burrell). Sigourney Weaver plays herself via audio recordings, acting as a kind of spokeswoman for the facility where this all takes place, and she’s name-checked a ridiculous amount of times in what amounts to a running gag.

Other comic relief supporting characters include Becky, a mute bird of questionable sanity; and a talkative mollusk whose name and voice actor I’m sadly unable to find. (If you know who I’m talking about, please leave a comment.) We also have Kate McKinnon and Bill Hader briefly appearing near the start as a couple of married fish, and of course their interplay is more than funny enough to make their one scene stand out.

But the most notable new addition to the cast is unquestionably Hank, an octopus played by Ed O’Neill. The character is a surly grump who learns to accept his own heart of gold, so of course the character plays perfectly to O’Neill’s strengths. Even better, the character’s eight seven-limbed anatomy, his emergency ink sacs, and his ability to change color are all used for some brilliant sight gags and plot developments.

All of these characters and quirks and running gags may be new, but they’re all charming and inventive and funny in ways that are compatible with the previous film. For example, the sea lions barking at others to stay off their rock is definitely in the same vein as the seagulls’ eternal cry for dibs, but the joke is just different enough to still feel fresh. Yet there are still plenty of jokes that carried over from the previous film. And they all have to do with Dory.

It shouldn’t exactly be a shock, given the title, but this is completely and totally Dory’s movie. Absolutely everything in this film revolves around the amnesiac blue tang fish, so of course her “Just keep swimming!” catchphrase and her ability to speak whale both get origin stories as the plot unfolds. Not a good move, in my opinion: You don’t explain your own joke, that’s just Comedy 101.

Ellen DeGeneres is on hand to reprise her role, and she’s every bit as brilliant here as she was in the previous film, though Sloane Murray and Lucia Geddes get to voice younger versions of the character in flashbacks. We’ve also got Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy, both perfectly cast as Dory’s parents.

Dory’s infamous short-term memory loss was only a funny little quirk in the previous movie, but it’s the entire crux of this sequel. Not only is it used for hundreds and hundreds of jokes, but it also lends dramatic weight to those moments when Dory has to act alone and without anyone to remind her what she was trying to do in the first place. Additionally, there are so many countless times in this movie when Dory says something random, which we eventually learn was just another repressed memory, and that payoff is always satisfying when it comes.

Her short-term memory loss is also what makes the entire premise possible, because of course Dory would feel awful about not remembering where she came from and she’d want to rectify that as quickly as possible. And again, major kudos are due to Ellen DeGeneres, whose voice work is a central part of what makes this character so loveable and her inner conflict so sympathetic.

Dory’s quirks and her journey inform the movie’s themes, most of which are standard family movie fare. What it means to be home, what it means to have family, what it means to be different, and so on and so forth. This is all stuff we’ve seen before. But as Pixar proved with The Good Dinosaur, they have an uncanny knack for taking the same messages we already know by heart and delivering them with so much sincerity and passion that the presentation still jerks a few tears. And it certainly helps to have a few brilliant plot twists — there was one particular moment at the 65-minute mark that was so unexpected and so powerful that I don’t mind admitting I damn near lost it.

Alas, the stuff with Dory is so compelling and so central to the plot that her other recurring costars get sidelined pretty much from start to finish. Marlin and Nemo are certainly in the movie (respectively voiced by a returning Albert Brooks and newcomer Hayden Rolence), and they do get a few funny scenes, but their effect on the plot is virtually nil. It was strange watching the filmmakers try and keep Marlin as his old neurotic overbearing self without rehashing his development arc from the previous film. I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t work.

(Side note: While Alexander Gould may have been too old to come back and voice Nemo, the filmmakers obligingly gave him a voice-over cameo role.)

Regarding the visuals and the music, I don’t think there’s anything I really need to say. Every frame of the film looks amazing and the animation is dazzling, but you already knew that. Thomas Newman returns to compose the score (as he did for the previous film) and of course it sounds fine. Speaking of which, the movie features Sia covering Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” over the end credits, which was an inspired choice in so many ways.

As for miscellaneous story notes, I’ve got to say that the screenwriters were way too clever for their own good. So much of this movie involves marine life navigating an aquarium that’s mostly on ground, and the filmmakers resort to some laughably improbable contrivances in making that work. Additionally, while I’m all in favor of our main characters facing impossible odds during the climax, the filmmakers relentlessly continue to paint themselves into such tight corners that the resolutions are utterly ludicrous when they come.

Finding Dory is hardly up to the same standard as its prequel, but that’s not exactly saying much. In fact, it would hardly be a fair comparison for any film. But while Finding Dory falls short of greatness, it’s still a good movie with an outstanding voice cast that’s beautiful, charming, heartfelt, and funny as only Pixar could deliver. And while the film may stumble in terms of comedy and plot coherence, at least it fell short while trying something new. When the filmmakers could so easily have rested on their laurels and rehashed the original classic (just look at the library of DTV animated Disney sequels, for God’s sake), that counts for a lot.

I saw the film in 2D, but it was very clearly designed with 3D in mind. So go see the movie and have a great time. If you have kids, I’m sure they’re begging you for it anyway.

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