In the thirteen years since Finding Nemo was made, Pixar’s animation has advanced considerably. We got a reminder of that before Finding Dory even started playing, in the form of the short in front of it: Piper, a charming little movie about a sandpiper chicklet, which uses the newest techniques to make CGI birds look so realistic, you have to remind yourself they’re computerized, especially they’re wandering through sand and waves that look like they came straight out of a live-action movie. The story is one that might have just carried an obviously animated short, but the filmmaking turns it into an awe-worthy one.
It was a perfect lead-in to a movie where likewise much of the ocean was animated to look remarkably realistic, on a level that just didn’t happen back in 2003. Even some of the animal characters(those two sea lions!) and other moving objects like the big truck had the same realistic look. They couldn’t do it for everything, of course: our main trio had been animated back in 2003 and looked like they already had, and the humans that appear and some of the other creatures are likewise obviously 3D animated, but it still looked pretty impressive.
Perhaps films have gotten a little more serious in the past decade as well, or just more socially aware. Finding Nemo certainly had plenty of drama and some life lesson material, but Finding Dory is essentially the story of a psychiatrically disabled protagonist, as the memory issues that were played for laughs in the first film suddenly turn into a very serious thing that drives the plot and the emotionally journey of the main characters, especially when we keep running into other disabled characters as well. We have the protagonist from the first film now be the supporting character who has to overcome his ableism, and when he actually tells Dory what she’s brought to his and his son’s life, the contributions she can make to the world, it’s definitely the movie dropping an anvil, but one that in our society still needs to be dropped.
And hey, the emotional payoff absolutely hits your hard; when Dory and her parents were finally reunited, in scene that seems far-fetched if you look as it realistically, but one that absolutely works storywise, I nearly broke down.
Not that there isn’t plenty of comedy too. Hank the octopus and his camouflage especially provides plenty of hijinks. Plus once you take the quartet of main characters and turn them loose to figuratively run and chase each other around a marine life institute, the result is a fun ride that keeps you very well engaged, even as it also takes an opportunity or two to advance the emotional plot as well.