The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ‘Finding Dory’ and ‘Finding Nemo’ change the way we see disability

Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), the regal tang at the center of ‘”Finding Dory.” (Disney/Pixar)
Placeholder while article actions load

Forget “Me Before You,” the weepy romantic drama about a quadriplegic man, the young woman who falls in love with him while working as his caregiver and his plans to commit suicide, which has come under fire from disability activists. The biggest movie about characters with disabilities hits theaters Friday, and if history is any record, it’s likely to be a massive global hit.

Of course, it says a lot about the state of storytelling about disability in Hollywood that the characters in question are cartoon fish.

But the entertainment industry’s larger failings in no way diminish “Finding Dory,” the sequel to the 2003 Pixar smash “Finding Nemo.” In the first film, a clownfish named Marlin (Albert Brooks) overcomes his fears and chases after his son Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould in 2003, and Hayden Rolence in 2016) when Nemo is scooped up by an aquatic collector, meeting a regal tang named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), along the way. “Finding Dory” is devoted to Dory’s search for her parents, from whom she was separated as a child.

It’s easy to read both films broadly as stories about parents learning to trust their children; for all their charming specificity, Pixar movies are designed to tug heartstrings as widely as possible. Marlin was deeply affected by an early loss: his wife, Coral (Elizabeth Perkins), and many of their eggs were eaten by a barracuda, leaving Marlin to raise Nemo alone. Dory’s parents, we learn in “Finding Dory,” never gave up hope that their daughter would find her way home to them.

And in both cases, the children in question have disabilities. The barracuda attack on his family caused trauma to Nemo’s egg, and he hatched with a small right fin that somewhat impairs his swimming. And Dory has short-term memory loss that means she repeats herself, forgets what she’s doing or where she’s going, and even how to find her way home. “What if I forget you?” the young Dory asks her parents, Charlie (Eugene Levy) and Jenny (Diane Keaton) terrified, in an early scene in “Finding Dory.” “Will you forget me?”

The way Marlin, Charlie and Jenny handle their children’s growing independence is inevitably influenced by Nemo’s fin and Dory’s mind. Marlin, rather than seeing Nemo’s determination and persistence in learning to swim as quickly and as far as his friends, only sees his son’s weakness and vulnerability. Charlie and Jenny are more encouraging, finding ways to give Dory long-term memories, teaching to her brain, rather than trying to make it work differently.

One of the more poignant threads running through “Finding Dory” is the idea that while Marlin has learned that Nemo’s disability doesn’t make his son weak, he is still impatient with, and occasionally unkind to, Dory. Marlin discourages her from going to school because he believes she will be nuisance. And at one point, he snaps at her to “Go wait over there and forget. It’s what you do best.” Nemo has to point out to his father than denigrating Dory for the way her mind works is just as cruel and unfair as denigrating Nemo for his fin. “You made her feel like she couldn’t do it,” Nemo tells his father, suggesting that Marlin’s skepticism is a bigger obstacle for Dory than Dory’s own unique brain.

Along her journey, Dory meets other fish and whales who deal with their own impairments. Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a whale shark who Dory knew as a child, has limited vision, and often bumps into the sides of her tank. Bailey (Ty Burrell), a beluga whale, has a head injury that has interfered with his echolocation. And octopus Hank (Ed O’Neill) has lost a tentacle and fears losing another one. Where they see their limitations, Dory sees their variety and their talents. “You swim beautifully,” she tells Destiny. “I’ve never seen a fish swim like that before.” Together, they free themselves and help reunite Dory with Jenny and Charlie again.

I suspect that many of the families who go see “Finding Dory” will walk out of the theater without thinking much about the film’s treatment of disability, though those for whom the themes are particularly resonant will notice them everywhere. When thinking back on “Finding Nemo” before seeing “Finding Dory,” I have to admit Nemo’s fin wasn’t the first thing that came to mind. But if we treat Nemo’s fin or Dory’s brain as normal dramatic challenges, rather that causes for tragedy or pity, maybe that’s the point.

“Finding Dory” is a joyful movie, one that thrills in Dory’s capabilities and creativity, rather than lamenting what her brain has cost her. Her mind may operate in its own “Dory way” as Jenny puts it, but it still brought her home. Just as the sheer variety of fish and landscapes in the ocean are what make “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory” beautiful, the different ways Nemo and Dory move through the world, and the kindnesses they find there, make us see just how challenging and marvelous it can be.