Relax, FINDING DORY is good

There are fewer scarier possibilities for today’s modern moviegoer than a Pixar sequel. I personally cope with this by tempering my excitement for new Pixar fare in a way I didn’t used to, and emotionally holding out as long as I can to see if the films can win me over (Inside Out did, The Good Dinosaur did not). Is it fair to hold every new movie from the studio up to the “Pixar standard?” That’s a big question, but thankfully we can table that discussion for another day because Finding Dory both manages to justify its existence as a sequel to one of the most-loved family films of the ‘aughts and a comfortable addition to the Pixar canon.

Finding Dory feels retroactively necessary to the first film in a way few sequels do, primarily by taking the title to heart and giving Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, returning to the role that pushed her back into the mainstream over a decade ago) new dimensions that were only hinted at in Nemo. Her short-term memory loss is taken seriously as a disability instead of a cute narrative device, and the consequences of her mental handicap are brought into an uncomfortable new light. The sadness in her parents’ eyes as they try to teach a young (and dangerously cute) Dory how to survive is an unforgettable beat.

Dory’s search for her parents (Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton) provides the narrative thrust for the story, and their clear love for their daughter (expressed through extensive and meticulously-constructed flashbacks) and how that manifests is the most touching take-away from the film. The movie doesn’t venture into the same three-hankie territory as Up or Toy Story 3, but in some ways that’s a relief. There are a few big emotional moments that land well, but the film wisely doesn’t dwell on them for too long.

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The film struggles for the first half hour as it covers familiar territory (there’s an action beat designed to mirror the shark scene from the first film that doesn’t feel essential), and straightens out and takes off like a rocket once it sidelines Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence, taking over for Alexander Gould). Dory’s new foil is Hank the octopus (Ed O’Neill) who provides some comic edge and visual dynamism that help the film tremendously. Hope you like tentacles. There are interesting hints in the script that Hank has had a rough go of it, but they’re mostly subtextual touches for those who are paying attention.

Like the best Pixar films, Finding Dory is both consistently and unexpectedly funny. Pixar films are workshopped and tweaked within an inch of their lives, and while this vetting process may take away a sense of individual authorship, it means few jokes are duds. The few obvious pop culture references (some obvious but very funny references to Inception and Alien come to mind) work and won’t date the film but most of the biggest laughs come from well-constructed character moments. Also, make sure you stay through the credits.

It’s not top-tier Pixar (neither, arguably, is Finding Nemo), but it’s a very worthwhile addition to the studio’s stable and justifies its existence in a way that’s unexpected and heartening. Unlike the lesser Pixar sequels (ahem, Cars 2 and Monsters University) Dory succeeds by staying true to its source material and expanding on it meaningfully, as opposed to trying to switch genres or get too clever. You’re going to see Finding Dory no matter what, but rest assured, it’s worth it.

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Now Streaming: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

In an effort to be slightly more relevant to my friends who don’t go out to the multiplex all the time, I present Now Streaming. This series will feature interesting films that are accessible to pretty much everyone from home (i.e. Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now/Go)Our subject today, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, is currently available on Netflix.

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In an early scene from A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the final film in Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson’s loose trilogy about the human condition, an aging, pasty-looking man struggles to uncork a bottle of wine while his wife sings to herself and prepares dinner in the next room. After a half-dozen or so increasingly desperate pulls at the cork, the man appears to suffer a heart attack and collapses on the floor, his wife oblivious to his struggle. The scene cuts.

Following that, we see a mother on her deathbed surrounded by her adult children. One of them is late, and is appalled to see she clutches a bag filled with her expensive jewelry which she intends to take with her to the afterlife. He vainly attempts to wrestle the bag from her while she screams in protesting, berating her in the film’s native Swedish, “that’s not how it works!”

In the next scene, crew members of a ferry hunch over the body of a man who died just after he paid for his beer and sandwich. The crew is left with a dilemma: what to do with the food that’s already been purchased? After a pause, a bystander offers to take the beer, with a noncommittal shrug.

These three “meetings with death” come close to the beginning of the film and give a good idea of what’s in store: Andersson’s deep-focus, perpetually-static camera gazing upon tragicomic dioramas conveying the merciless bleakness of human existence. As with the other films ‘s Andersson’s Living trilogy, Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living, every shot is static and in deep focus, allowing the viewer ample time to take in the meticulously composed mise-en-scene of each frame. Almost any still in the movie would be suitable for framing.

Some of these sequences are more connected than others, over the course of the film certain characters reappear multiple times (about a quarter of the scenes focus on a pair of miserable novelty-item salesmen, nobody wants to buy fake vampire teeth) and some running gags show up consistently. Several key lines of dialogue appear in different contexts (many characters participate in identical one-sided phone conversations, telling whoever is one the other end of the line, “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine,” though clearly none are happy).

In the film’s final twenty minutes or so, the film takes a turn towards physical violence, and the necessity of this shift is debatable. Let’s be real though, you’re going to be watching this on Netflix and if you’ve already made it 85 minutes in, you’re committed. I laughed more during this film than I do for most things, and I’m not really sure what that says about me. If you’re feeling adventurous and have a little bit of patience, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is fascinating and absolutely worth a watch.