From its first line — “Hi, my name is Dory, and I suffer from short-term memory loss” — it’s clear that Pixar’s “Finding Dory” will deliver very pointed messages about disability and how society treats members of the disabled community. The film opens on a flashback. Dory is tiny, her voice making clear that she’s school-aged and just beginning to navigate a world beyond her doting, overprotective parents. And because we know Dory (Ellen Degeneres) so well from “Finding Nemo,” the 2003 film that introduced her character, we understand what’s at stake for her future.
When audiences met Dory more than a decade ago, she had no family. She was just a friendly, free-floating loner whose ability to communicate and form long-lasting bonds was greatly impacted by her memory loss. In “Finding Nemo,” she served mostly as comic relief, but we also got a glimpse of her fearlessness and her preternatural ability to find the goodness in anyone. This sequel, which focuses on Dory’s sudden recollection of her family and subsequent quest to reunite with them, takes a much closer look at her condition. Suddenly, short-term memory loss is something we should treat with a bit of gravitas. Now that Dory understands the profundity of what her condition has caused her to lose — a home, her parents — we can no longer dismiss it as a cutesy punch line.
If this premise gives the impression that the film itself is downer, it isn’t. The laughs are still present here, and children will certainly be able to appreciate the pacing, the colors and the action sequences that move Dory through the ocean toward her final destination. But in some ways, “Finding Dory” also has more intellectual and emotional urgency than “Nemo.” Where the latter was told from the perspective of an adult — Marlin (Albert Brooks), a widowed father searching for his son — this film is told by a daughter. Dory is just childlike enough to be relatable to kids, and that makes her odyssey that much easier for children to grasp.
Because she’s plucky, the characters she encounters assume that she can’t be insulted. Because of her condition, they don’t think she’ll be able to remember that they’ve hurt her. But “Finding Dory” seems dedicated to attacking those perceptions at every turn, allowing Dory emotional fallouts with friends and the occasional clever retort when someone throws a barb. We also see her friends and acquaintances being taken aback by her savvy and her ability to problem-solve in a crisis — a skill she also displayed in “Finding Nemo,” though Marlin often took it for granted.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about “Finding Dory’s” exploration of disability is that she isn’t the only character navigating one. Early in the film, she meets Hank (Ed O’Neill), an octopus with what seems to be agoraphobia. Later, she reunites with a childhood friend, Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a whale shark whose myopia causes her to constantly bump into the walls of her tank. And she meets Bailey (Ty Burrell), who suffers from some sort of delusion. There’s a water bird who cannot verbally communicate but always manages to find its homing target. And of course, there’s Nemo, whose disability isn’t mentioned in this film but can be evident in the disappointment he feels when Marlin underestimates Dory. When he accuses Marlin of making Dory feel as though she couldn’t succeed in her mission because of her memory, it’s a callback to the first film when Marlin hovered and sheltered Nemo because of his weak fin.
The overarching message in “Finding Dory” seems to be that difference should be celebrated and accommodated, in the same way that exceptional talent is. At the film’s onset, Dory announces her memory loss to everyone she meets, often with a tone of profuse apology. But by the end of the film, she stops apologizing and everyone else learns to simply assist her when needed and to patiently give her latitude to challenge herself otherwise. She can’t do it alone, which is another of the film’s big takeaways: A supportive community is essential to the happiness and health of every member. But Dory’s independence — something she finds during her long journey toward home — can and should be encouraged. In this film, it is, to heartwarming results.
Correction: This post has been updated to note that Destiny is a whale shark, not a hammerhead shark.