Pixar Plays It Safe With 'Finding Dory'

The real highlight of Pixar's presentation of Finding Dory is their latest short, Piper. Telling the story of a small sandpiper afraid of water but oh-so-hungry for tiny clams, the photorealistic elements of individual grains of sand and water droplets create a stunningly realized environment. While the characters are recognizably human, the birds are less anthropomorphized than anything in Pixar's features, limiting their more "human" expressions essentially to the eyes, thus striking a uniquely different emotional core than usual. As the sunset reflects at a different pixilation at every point on the screen, the film luxuriates in its environment as it tells its simple story. It's the most boundary-pushing technical achievement CGI animation has created yet.

Those elements don't much carry over to the grand affair: director Andrew Stanton's sequel to Finding Nemo, this one named after the Ellen Degeneres-voiced blue tang sidekick with a bubbly personality and short-term memory loss. When we last left Dory, she had found a surrogate family alongside Albert Brooks' clownfish Marlin and his Jules Verne-named son. But a series of triggers set off Dory's memories about her actual parents (Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton), and so it's off on another adventure to find them. Instead of traversing the whole ocean, the film centers its action to the various attractions at the Marine Life Institute in Morro Bay (itself modeled off the Monterey Bay Aquarium).

In recent years, the Pixar narrative formula has begun to feel less like its key to its success than its Achilles' heel; Finding Dory's major weaknesses stem from its adherence to a three-act, 12-step journey. Every scene feels like a variation on the previous—the characters meet someone new (friend, foe, or a lonely and talkative clam), which sparks either an action or comic set piece. Danger is presented for a brief moment (pounded on by Thomas Newman's unrelenting score) and finally dwindles, leading to a character giving a thematically poignant speech about listening or sticking together and thus cueing the audience's tears. Rinse and repeat.

As Marlin and Dory move around each part of the park, it seems like every moment seems to play this same formula out over and over. New sidekicks—Ed O'Neil's cranking seven-armed octopus, Kaitlin Olson's near-sighted whale shark, Ty Burell's timid beluga, Idris Elba and Dominic West as bickering sea lions—can only provide so much comic accompaniment. The problem isn't with Pixar's lack of ideas—Inside Out proved they are geniuses of adding feelings to anything—but its that their creative execution of story now too often shows its skeletal origins. The stakes feel too artificially constructed, and even the film's climatic semi-truck freeway chase sits weightlessly onscreen before ending with an ironic music cue, something the studio would have never done a decade ago. Stanton and his creative team have created a colorful world (the way water reflects on the skin of each animal is a delight), but there's none of the imagination on display that the director poured into his misunderstood flop, John Carter.

Pixar's main audience won't mind this of course, but parents (not to mention teens and millennials brimming with nostalgia) might wish that Pixar felt as ambitious in their storytelling as they do with their technical prowess in bringing these worlds to life. If anything, Pixar more and more resembles its other Disney-owned partners, Marvel and Lucasfilm, aiming for the safest trajectory on any given project to hold the line of branding its parent company demands. Finding Dory hits all the notes of action and pathos required, but it lays them out in an all too familiar way.

Finding Dory opens Friday.

Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.