Finding Dory (2016)

★★★★

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Finding Dory PosterDirectors: Andrew Stanton & Angus MacLane

Release Date: June 17th, 2016 (US); July 29th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Animation; Adventure; Comedy

Starring: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill

You know the story by now: if something is successful and breeds enjoyment, chances are that something will have a successor. Gratification, after all, is a part of life. And it’s a significant part of the Hollywood experience too. When Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton initially heard rumblings from Disney bosses about the possibility of a sequel to his 2003 underwater triumph, he balked at the prospect. But, as revealed in a 2013 interview with the Los Angeles Times, he has since had a change of heart, the director now willing to accept sequels are good for business. They pave a path for financial gratification. It’s up to filmmakers like Stanton, therefore, to ensure franchise entities are built atop the correct foundations. That is, sturdy storytelling and not paper money.

Which brings us to Finding Dory, Stanton’s tentatively conceived follow up to Finding Nemo and a sequel built, for the most part, atop the correct foundations. Whereas the previous outing cast Nemo (now voiced by Hayden Rolence) adrift, Finding Dory unsurprisingly sends Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) on a disorienting sprint across the ocean as she attempts to reunite with her long lost parents. Nemo’s father Marlin (Albert Brooks) is again part of the rescue mission, frustrated by Dory’s manic forgetfulness but caring and determined to see her safe return.

That Dory’s short-term memory loss again weaves its way into the humour bulk without negligence is commendable. Stanton and co-writer Victoria Strouse carefully craft amusing sequences that can only exist as a result of Dory’s amnesia — pick out any of her interactions with octopus Hank (Ed O’Neill) — but that refrain from using said amnesia as a target. The moments also work because they have us laughing alongside Dory; she recognises that in certain situations there is amusement to be drawn from her misfortune. “Don’t be such a Dory, Dory,” the blue-tang exclaims following a bout of forgetfulness. But being such a Dory is what endears her to us, and what helps make the film an enjoyable watch.

Nor do the writers stop short at humour; we are encouraged throughout to sympathise with Dory’s predicament. The main story unfolds around a handful of flashbacks which, though repetitive in content, familiarise us with Dory’s mother (Diane Keaton) and father (Eugene Levy). We know who to look out for, but for a period you do wonder whether or not Dory will recognise her family. Little happens during these splashes of the past, each snippet designed mainly to generate a sense of familial bond rather than develop our protagonist’s personality. It’s a decent idea that does at least propel this notion of love overriding hardship even if it doesn’t stimulate much drama.

This means much of Dory’s gravitas is derived not from the narrative, but from the recording studio. Ellen, her amiable voice honed over years of daytime talk show hosting, again affords Dory a wonderfully receptive sound. Let’s be honest: it wouldn’t take a whole lot of wayward writing to turn a forgetful, high energy former sidekick into a main character primed to get on our nerves, but Ellen’s easy listening ambience ensures nothing of the sort even threatens to happen.

Now, though, to the pièce(s) de résistance: Idris Elba and Dominic West as a pair of lazy sea lions. The actors nail the grumpiness of their animated companions, immediately punctuating the screen with a Cockney arrogance that brims with devious intent. They defy the fast-talking mantra laid bare elsewhere in the film: whereas Dory, Marlin, and the rest rattle off words as if they are in a Scorsese picture, the sea lions settle for a more chilled manner. They reserve their vocal velocity for Gerald (Torbin Xan Bullock), a fellow flipper who on numerous occasions attempts to climb atop their resting rock: the duo’s subsequent “Off! Off! Off!” war cry is hilarious.

The sea lions, named Fluke and Rudder for those keeping score, turn up during Marlin and Nemo’s search for Dory at a marine institute. The lions are a highlight, clearly, but our time spent with Marlin and Nemo generally isn’t as interesting as our time spent with Dory. (Perhaps this should not come as much of a surprise given the wild goose chase arc is essentially what we saw play out in Finding Nemo.) The marine institute does welcome more engaging action though, especially since this is the point at which the film whips out its Pixar badge, recalling the likes of Toy Story as it depicts the turbulent ingenuity evoked by a bunch of non-humans navigating a human locale.

I should note the animation itself, especially since the marine section of the film is where we really get to witness the visual prowess contained within the Pixar design ranks. Animation by nature provides a platform for unlimited imagination, but when working within a human world it can also pose something of an adaptation challenge. Getting the right balance between recognisable realism and kooky fantasy is key, as is not seeping into uncanny valley territory when promoting those imaginative tendencies — while it is crucial we see an octopus disguised as a baby in a pram, it is also imperative nobody is freaked out by the resultant visual. And while the antics are out there, the landscape itself shimmers with authenticity. The water texture is wonderful, for instance, especially when viewed from above ground.

Finding Dory is not as emotionally gripping as recent Pixar efforts — the comparison is strained, I admit, but this isn’t on the level of an Inside Out. Nor is it as thematically resonant: there is a point when we arrive at the marine institute where you think the writers are about to delve into the whole Sea World saga, but that thought never gets off the ground. Moments of wit are aplenty throughout though, and while there doesn’t seem to be enough story left for another adventure (unless we’re talking sea lion spin-offs), Stanton and co-director Andrew MacLane have commendably rinsed just about all they can from the series. Heck, they even mould the word “carp” into a one-liner with year-best potential. Incredible.

Finding Dory - Dory

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Inside Out (2015)

★★★★★

Inside Out PosterDirector: Pete Docter

Release Date: June 19th, 2015 (US); July 24th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Animation; Adventure; Comedy

Starring: Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black

If you’ve spent years agonising over the possibility of a live action Numskulls film — and let’s face it, who hasn’t? — you’re finally in luck. Inside Out takes the premise of said comic strip and imbues it with a visual vitality not always achievable on paper. But more than that, the film smartly and effectively explores the social complexities of growing up, and does so amidst a level of confidence not relayed from Pixar since Toy Story 3. One thing is absolutely certain: the creative minds behind the studio’s latest imagination emporium are no numbskulls.

The film follows youngster Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), whose bright and bubbly exterior matches her consistently joyful interior. See, Joy (Amy Poehler) is Riley’s overriding emotion, she having commandeered a monopoly on her host’s mind since birth. A sudden shift in locale from her beloved, chilly Minnesota to an unhomely San Francisco disturbs the eleven-year-old’s mental hierarchy, leaving Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader) in charge.

As you can probably imagine, this loss of cheerful guidance sends Riley down a path of greater isolation in already isolating surroundings. Happy core memories — which power five primary islands, including Family Island and Goofball Island — are tinged with solemnity via Sadness (Phyllis Smith), whose clumsiness catapults her and Joy away from the central hub. You buy into the film’s simple story, desperately urging the odd couple back to Headquarters, even if the various structural nodes take a while to fully grasp.

The inside of Riley’s head assumes a life of its own, where reality has been remodelled with a rainbow-like gloss. Fittingly, we find out it’s a movie studio (aptly called Dream Productions) that is responsible for the creation of dreams. With her rectangular hair and sharp glare, Riley’s dream auteur resembles Scarefloor clerk Roz from Monsters, Inc. Pete Docter, who helmed Mike and Sulley’s fun frightfest, also directs here and does so with incessant invention, answering questions about how the mind is constructed before we even get the chance to think them up. At one point the action calls for a dream to become a nightmare, and as such Dream Productions’ feature film evolves into a horror movie starring a huge scary clown.

Inside Out often takes its visual cues from Toy Story, both materially and comically. Just as that franchise portrays Slinky, a stretch toy, in Sausage Dog form, here Anger wears a shirt and tie combo normally associated with workers who are fed up with their job and full of scorn. Anger is also the lead emotion inside Riley’s father’s head, a playful jab at male stereotypes; men are either grumpy, preoccupied by sports or hilariously militaristic when it comes to getting things done at the last minute. We stalk the camera during a superbly written family dinner scene as it invades the inner workings of mother and father (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan), showing their respective reactions towards Riley’s morose attitude.

Fear is unabashedly spontaneous, in a state of terminal alarm and never boring to watch — Bill Hader just about steals the show with his squawking audio performance. Joy glows, whereas Sadness is a murky blue colour, small and forever huddled up. Phyllis Smith’s voice work as the latter channels Saturday Night Live’s Debbie Downer to perfection. Disgust, obviously, carries the poise and style of a fashion expert.

Throughout we constantly weigh up whether the emotions are controlling Riley, or if it’s Riley who is controlling her emotions. On occasion you can’t help but give into the sprightly visual splendour and the barrage of smart gags, but even in these moments the film steers well clear of all that is routine. For adults Inside Out could be a hypothetical examination of mental illness, or simply a voyage into the psychologically transformative nature of ageing. For children it’s also about growing up, only the immediacy of events on screen are sure to hit home with greater verve. The film affords young viewers an optical veracity that likely mirrors their ongoing experiences.

Pixar hasn’t shied away from misfortune in the past — see the first ten minutes of Up, or the abandonment arc in Toy Story 3 — and the studio continues to respect its audience by maintaining that mature philosophy here. Joy is undoubtedly a positive influence on Riley’s life, but her mistrust of Sadness is telling. The establishment of a ‘Circle of Sadness’ is a somewhat autocratic control mechanism thought up by Joy to restrict Riley’s emotional output. Joy doesn’t want her young anchor to ail, not realising the process of ailing plays a crucial role in a person’s development.

Docter and co-writers Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley champion lightheartedness in equal measure, matching seriousness with amusement: less imperative memories are tossed away at the onset of teenagehood, at which point bouts of important knowledge (US Presidents, piano skills) succumb to materiality (the perfect boyfriend). The funniest running gag, which centres on an annoying advert with a catchy theme song, is irksomely on point. This mixture of slapstick, witty and child friendly — though not childish — comedy gives the movie a peppy air. “That’s it, I fold,” bemoans a Jelly Bean-esque builder whose house made of cards keeps collapsing.

Long-term memory is visualised as a gigantic maze library. The filmmakers even explore abstract thought; the realisation of our overly analytical side (something writers can relate to), where notions and ideas and truths are deconstructed and subsequently flattened to the point of nothingness. It’s a brilliantly incisive scene that implores us not to be too self-critical or too self-diagnostic.

The primary message throughout Inside Out is a reassuring one. Sometimes it’s okay to be sad. Or angry, or fearful, or disgusted. These are feelings that will eventually subside and offer in their place a stepping stone to happiness, and to other, more complex and interesting emotions. Docter’s film is rich in subtext, one of those that you should watch again and again and could pick apart all day thereafter. This warrants examination both inside and out.

Inside Out - Emotions

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures