Finding Dory has me worried for Pixar, a studio with such a remarkable track record, despite a few easily forgivable stinkers, that one can point to their films alone as prime examples of animation as a mode of filmmaking worthy of greater critical, artistic and cultural respect. I’m not worried because Dory is lacking in quality. To the contrary, in many ways I enjoyed it more than 2003’s Finding Nemo. But Dory does represent a crucial point in Pixar’s development, as Pixar is currently ramping up its production output and balancing its originals with an increasing number of sequels. Thankfully, Dory reverses the trend of recent disppointing Pixar sequels like Monster’s University and Cars 2, and is more in line with the Toy Story series. But while there’s room for growth, for these films to deepen and enrich their worlds and characters, there’s also room for failure, creative bankruptcy and for the films to become lazy, mindless, and fester into nothing more than cynical cash grabs devoid of the inspiration that defines Pixar’s best originals.

The latter scenario is exemplified in Dory’s script, its weakest element. While there are new twists to the story, it suffers from overfamiliarity. A year after Finding Nemo, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), the lovable blue tang from the first film who suffers from short term memory loss, has the memory of her lost family triggered and convinces her new surrogate family Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) to go on a journey to California to help find her parents. Once again, there’s a cross-ocean adventure, that winds up in a space where aquatic animals are kept in captivity (although it’s an animal rehabilitation center this time as opposed to a dentist’s fish tank), colorful and hilarious characters are met along the way, an action packed climax is reached and amongst all the zany antics and comedic chaos, the “Pixar Moment” (as I call it) is reached: a scene, or scenes, of peak emotional catharsis, the moment close to the end of the film where the filmmakers inevitably make you cry, or at least try to.

There are a few throwback jokes and characters that writer/director Andrew Stanton and co-writer Victoria Strouse seem to throw in for fan service, and while they are fun, most feel like empty references that distract from all that is new and compelling in the film. Dory’s new supporting characters are perhaps funnier than Nemo’s, but they’re also not as memorable. They feel like walking joke machines/plot developments and some even rely on dull clichés. There isn’t anybody quite as fun or funny as Crush the Sea Turtle or Bruce the Shark. But this may be unfair, as I haven’t had as long to live with these new characters as I have the old ones. But still, I don’t find myself quoting specific lines or remembering endearing character traits from Dory’s new friends, just a vague recollection that I found them funny, without any specificity. In terms of character and plot, Dory can’t stack up to Nemo. It’s giving you more or less what you expect from a Finding Nemo sequel. It also lacks the depth of some Pixar’s best. There’s none of the psychological complexity and emotional maturity of Inside Out, and none of the astute social commentary of Wall-E. Not to mention, there’s some less than stellar dialogue.

But while Stanton may be lacking narrative originality in a way he didn’t in Nemo and Wall-E (arguably Pixar’s best film), he makes up for it in a welcome overabundance of visual ideas when it comes to his direction. In fact, the Pixar film I can make the closest comparison to is Brad Bird’s The Incredibles. Both films show an ostentatiously vibrant, inventive, playful and intelligent approach to their filmmaking. But where Bird’s style is tight and rigorous, a lean, mean, well-oiled entertainment machine, Stanton’s is wild, free-wheeling, and loose. Stanton takes full advantage of the vibrant colors and unique physics of the world he and his animators have created and lets his imagination loose in ways Nemo and Wall-E only hinted at. Those earlier films felt showy in their approach, creating awe-inspiring images and composing them in wide, painterly shots as if to show off the team’s hard work in creating a beautiful underwater kingdom, or the cosmic grandeur of outer space. Dory never feels like it’s showing off. We’re not on a tour of this world, we’re immersed in it, exploring its nooks and crannies and getting lost in the pure sensation of it. And Stanton once again intelligently recruits Thomas Newman, one of the best working composers, to provide the score, and it aids in the film not just for musical consistency’s sake, but because Newman’s rich, ethereal style is perfectly suited to the lush visuals of Stanton’s undersea universe.

It’s a more subjective than objective experience this time around, like we’re in Dory’s head; constantly in the moment, excitedly looking for what’s next. It feels more purely cinematic, more abstract, we’re meant to get lost in the pure sensation of light, color, and movement. And that’s another thing: this film moves. Another animated film I compare it to is DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon. Both films invest in pure kinetic physics, in giving us the sense of speed and grace that one might feel flying on the back of a mythical, winged reptile or zipping around a near weightless, boundary-less aquatic environment. But Stanton knows how to embrace stillness as well, as seen in several of the film’s more emotional moments, such as the previously mentioned “Pixar Moment.” Extreme wide shots of Dory all alone against a nearly empty backdrop evoke a sense of fear that is nigh impossible to achieve through any other means. Finding Dory is a step down from Stanton as a literary storyteller, but it’s a major step up from him as a visual and aural one. Finding Dory is nothing if not an exuberant sensory experience.

And so we have everything Pixar can do right and everything they can do wrong going forward. They can continue to push themselves forward as cinematic artists and storytellers, or, like everything else Disney touches, they can resign themselves to commercial incentives and mainstream banalities. Keep going forward Pixar, or as one of your most beloved characters would sing: “Just Keep Swimming.”

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