One man understands Pixar's Dory, the fish with severe short-term memory loss. But, of course, he doesn't know it. When Clive Wearing was 46, an infection wiped his brain. Every 30 seconds, his mind reboots. If he's in bed, he thinks he's just woken up from a coma. If he pauses walking to the kitchen, he gets lost in his own house. Everything is new — except his wife, whom he adores, even if he can't always remember her name. This has gone on for three decades. At the hospital during those first terrible years, he told his psychologist, "It’s like being dead."
That morbidity covers every scale of Finding Dory like fin rot. The sequel to 2003's Finding Nemo, again by creator Andrew Stanton, opens with Dory's parents terrified about protecting their big-eyed, blank-slated fry. Imagine raising a kid destined to wander off in every store in the mall. We already know they fail; Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) is fated to get lost, grow up, and continually annoy Nemo and his dad Marlin (Hayden Rolence and Albert Brooks, respectively). Now that Nemo's back home, she barges into their bedroom all night and irritates the entire coral reef. On a school field trip, she repeats everything the instructor, Mr. Ray, says until she's accidentally knocked unconscious. "No, she's not dead," Mr. Ray reports, and the entire class groans. Jeez, Stanton. If you actually thought that was funny, maybe don't make audiences spend a whole film with a pest.
Dory resurfaces from near-death with one memory: Her home is off the coast of California. She strong-gills Nemo and Marlin to make the 7,000-mile paddle across the Pacific. (Again, but this time it takes two minutes.) Not that plausibility matters, but blue tangs can live for 20 years if you were figuring her fish parents couldn't possibly be alive. However, that doesn't explain how Nemo hasn't aged in 13 years unless he's an immortal clownfish. She nearly gets Nemo killed and, moments later, is scooped up by marine biologists and plopped in a SeaWorld–esque theme park. Cue rescue after rescue after rescue after rescue. And just when you think it's over, there's ... a car chase?
Pretend Dory actually died in the first act and the rest of Finding Dory makes more sense. Her slipstream trip to California is like crossing the river Styx, and now she's in Hades. The aquarium is the nine levels of hell, in which Dante is a dolphin. Inside the gates, blind whales spend their lives slamming into their tank walls. Lonely oysters shriek for the scallop who broke their heart. Sea birds are forced to obey anyone who makes eye contact. Outcast sea lions struggle to stay afloat, as eternally exhausted as Sisyphus, while their pack forbids them to flop their bodies on the only rock. Our heroes are pitched into tanks with mindless wind-up toys, lost in the limbo of grim, barnacle-crusted pipes, and thrown into buckets of dead sardines, mouths pointed up at the ceiling in a silent scream.
Young fans in the theater — the kids who love Nemo so much they beg their family to take them to the aquarium — learn that they are the enemy. Every starfish and bivalve is petrified of being transferred to the petting pond, a horror film inside a horror film where faceless, fat-fingered tykes burst through the water's surface like Jaws in reverse. In the theater lobby afterward, shell-shocked children clung to their parents, eyes red-rimmed with tears.
It's hard to tell if Finding Dory meant to be this bleak. Over the institute loudspeakers, Sigourney Weaver — playing Sigourney Weaver — vows that the place is a sanctuary of "rescue, rehabilitation, and release." Comforting, if her voice makes you think of competent brainiac Ripley; less so if you've seen Weaver's evil masterminds in Chappie, Wall-E, Abduction, and The Cabin in the Woods. The film itself splits the difference: Its marine park is colorful and inviting and well lit — and can in a second shift perspective into a villain's lair.
I'm not being entirely fair to dumb, sweet Finding Dory. It's a kids movie made for kids, not for critics who can't help being cynical that this is the second Disney blockbuster sequel in three weeks where the plot boils down to "annoying secondary character seeks mommy and daddy." Spend too long with either Dory or the Mad Hatter and you're tempted to track down their folks yourself and give them a condom. Plus, it's not Finding Dory's fault that we (perhaps selfishly) wish her real parents — the Pixar animators who drew her — would sketch new worlds instead of retracing old ones.
There are visual moments in Dory that are almost as lovely as anything in the first — they're more fleeting, but they're there — while the opening short, Piper, is a delicate parable about fear with the most stunning animated wet sand I've ever seen. And it's hard to find fault with the film's ultimate message, that even impossible-seeming problems can be eased if we accept and work with them, an optimism that will vibrate through audiences struggling with challenges from anxiety to dyslexia. That's even true for Clive Wearing. Now 78, his decades with amnesia have one romantic plus: Every time his wife, Deborah, walks into the room, he falls in love with her again like it's the first time. Dory feels that way about her friends. If only the film felt that way about her.
[Illustration: Kurt Woerpel/MTV News]