TUCSON - After serving as a stooge whose main purpose was throwaway comic relief in "Finding Nemo," the forgetful blue tang Dory voiced by Ellen DeGeneres takes center stage in the sequel. And in a masterstroke of a twist, her short-term memory loss is played for horror instead of cheap laughs.
The movie is about the embarrassment and inner torment caused by mental disability, and the ongoing struggle to cope and adapt. So devastating is "Finding Dory" at hammering home its tone that not only will you not laugh at Dory this movie, you won't be able to watch the first film the same way ever again.
Far more than the harmless reunion movie it could have been, "Finding Dory" goes way beyond rounding up a group of beloved characters for a generic deep sea adventure. As penetrating and well-written a story as you're likely to see on screen this year, it also manages to be consistently funny and exciting. This is the rare crossover film capable of connecting with nearly any audience -- from toddlers to teens to parents to seniors -- on their given levels -- and its effect is mesmerizing and no doubt endlessly rewatchable.
The story mostly unfolds from the perspective of Dory, to whom the world is a confounding riddle that reinvents itself every few minutes, hiding mysteries to her that are revealed to everyone else with a consistent memory. Her recollection resurfaces in flashes that taunt her with clues to her past -- snippets of conversation, images and contextless snippets of conversation -- that can potentially lead her on the path to whatever she's looking for, but can just as easily send her astray.
The lesson that loved ones drive in to Dory is that she needs to rely on those she trusts to help her find what she needs, and that stubborn independence is the way to disaster. That's some tough chum to swallow for a character who yearns to reconnect with her parents, from whom she accidentally wandered away from as a child.
As directors Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane havestt that fertile field of pathos, they manage to spin a tale that is just as visually stunning and compelling as the incomparable classic it follows. Rather than recycling scenes and characters from the original, we're treated to new ecosystems and oddballs of the endless underwater frontier. There is also some thinly veiled barbs directed at high-minded but clumsy marine rescue and rehabilitation services, which can cause just as much harm as they salve.
A particularly harrowing scene comically shows how awful it must be for Sea World-style tide pool creatures to deal with the constant assault of grubby, rough hands of bratty kids.
There is enough to dissect and analyze in this movie to serve as the subject of grad school theses, but the real trick of the movie is that it's not as boring or serious as that descriptor would seem to make it sound. Like "Finding Nemo," "Finding Dory" is filled with a sense of boundless joy and discovery. And also like the original, the sequel is burdened by a strained, borderline idiotic ending that slams the story to a stop rather than let it come to a graceful conclusion.
Minor flaw aside, "Finding Dory" is a deep sea treasure with endless charms that swim around in your mind.
RATING: 3.5 stars out of 4.