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

Annie Hall (1977)

★★★★★

Annie Hall PosterDirector: Woody Allen

Release Date: April 20th, 1977 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Drama; Romance

Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton

Films are often categorised under the “escape” section of our everyday lives. We watch to disassociate with reality for short bursts of time, to be present only within the context of the tedious romcom playing out on screen. Or the spectacular science-fiction trek that hurtles us towards another planet. Or the not-so-scary slasher flick we’ve seen a hundred times yet whose economical frights we still get a kick out of. Every so often though, there’s a film that commands our attention and refrains from releasing its grasp even long after the credits have finished rolling. Woody Allen’s infectious romantic dramedy is that film. Presented in a simple-yet-effective manner, it’s the delivery of the piece that approaches astounding. Annie Hall truly is a hallmark of American cinema.

Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) is an ardent New Yorker with a panache for eccentricity and a motor mouth to back it up. He’s also a comedian who plays doubles tennis every so often, and it’s on one of these sporting jaunts that Alvy meets Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). The connection between the pair is palpable from the moment they first awkwardly converse.

This isn’t a complicated film. Sure, it gets caught up in a barrage of intellectually stimulated dialogues echoed by apparently complex characters but that’s wholeheartedly where the fun lies. And it really is fun. Alvy is an erratic guy who just about holds it together by way of his methodological consistency. He wants to know the who, what, where, when, and why about everything because this allows him to pick apart and challenge. (“Everything our parents said was good is bad: sun, milk, red meat, college.”) Maybe it’s the comedian in him, but one gets the sense that his mannerisms have been ingrained since childhood — Alvy alludes to the adolescent trauma enforced by the roller coaster that often rattled above his house.

On the other hand there’s Annie. Not quite carefree but certainly free-spirited, Annie is bubbly and bumbling. The chipper lass ain’t entirely sure of herself when we first meet, though she steadily gains resolve and direction alongside the spitfire that is Alvy. They’re quite different people and share a relationship that invariably teeters between effusive and choppy. She’s Los Angeles, he’s New York. Certainly, their premier interaction post-tennis match embodies the joyous authenticity of the couple. The scene is awkward and endearing and hilarious, and from then we can’t take our eyes off of pair’s dynamic nor remove our permanent smile induced as a result of their witty banter. The film is all about them, fortunately. In some ways we feel unduly cut short at 93 minutes, but in others the hour and a half feels like a perfect summation of director Woody Allen’s vision. For a film so focused on two people — it does flirt with a variety of issues, but hones in on their relationship — Alvy and Annie are perpetually watchable.

Aided by semi-prominent collaborator Marshall Brickman, Allen’s original screenplay ensures his characters’ long-term watchability is a certainty. It’s outstanding. The film is bookended by two Woody Allen (or Alvy, but we get the sense they’re the same person) monologues, both of which represent the writer — and actor and director — at his most prosperous. Endlessly quotable (“Joey Nichols. See? Nichols. See? Nichols!”) and unafraid to tackle a whole range of affairs from 70s New York culture to drug use to the US East/West divide, Allen and Brickman’s screenplay rightly bagged an Academy Award at the organisation’s semicentennial ceremony. The narrative never suffocates its characters; even on the odd occasion when an overly vague cultural reference escapes Allen’s cerebral pen, the film skips along unscathed, our viewing experience likewise resilient.

This might also be one of the filmmaker’s funniest outings. With light-hearted subtlety often capitalised on by Allen and his acting partner Diane Keaton, Annie Hall never stops short at provoking laughter. Whether it’s a character living up to expectations — in the case of psychiatric results, it’s two characters — or a swivel away from narrative convention, humour is always lying in wait and we’re eternally willing to guzzle. The latter of these two examples sees Alvy accuse a pompous cinemagoer of being too indulgent. Allen, in this instance himself a quasi-critic evaluating the pretentious kind, is also poking fun at himself and the plethora of ‘don’t sneeze or you’ll miss the point’ diatribes he has written into the film.

As previously alluded to, the piece is shot abiding by a mantra of simplicity that serves to position the spotlight on its characters and accentuate their presence. The camera lingers on conversations for a long period of time because it knows it’s peering into aural gold. Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy springs to mind, a romantic moment in time that shares many intricacies with Annie Hall and was undoubtedly influence by Allen’s effective candour. Periodically we do see a few neat tricks play out, such as Alvy and company breaking the third wall or random subtitles translating small-talk for real thoughts, but these aren’t just pithy inclusions. Rather, they serve a purpose, be that to inject amusement or make a specific point about life.

The performances from Diane Keaton and Woody Allen ought to speak for themselves, but it’s worth noting that they’re wonderful. Annie Hall plays out in a non-chronological fashion. We already know the ending because it’s also the beginning, but that doesn’t matter one jot. It’s the journey that counts, and this journey is one of the very best.

Annie Hall - Woody and Diane

Images credit: IMP Awards, Total Film

Images copyright (©): United Artists