During the advance screening of Finding Dory, the visually vibrant sequel to the adorable instant animated classic Finding Nemo, I couldn’t help but drift back to thoughts of Memento, Christopher Nolan’s dark psychological thriller from 2000.
Bear with me, because I know it sounds strange to compare the two, but I imagine Dory, the loveably forgetful blue tang fish (voiced to perfection by Ellen DeGeneres), struggling to even remember that she had a family that she lost long ago, wishes she had hands to write a few timely notes on her skin to guide her, much like Memento’s Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce).
As the narrative of Memento unfolds — while simultaneously twisting and folding back into itself — we see the dogged determination that drives Leonard, the surviving victim of a horrible home invasion that took the life of his wife and left him with short-term memory loss that does not allow him to retain new memories for more than a few precious moments. To hold onto a sense of functionality, Leonard obsessively writes notes to himself (trusting only tidbits written in his own handwriting), going so far as to tattoo the most important information on his body. His goal is to piece together clues in order to find his wife’s killer and mete out justice.
Along his journey, Leonard encounters various people and presses them for some kernel of truth, but inevitably must often apologize for repeating himself. His tagline — “I have a condition” — becomes a mantra that in most cases gets repeated back to him.
Dory’s backstory has none of the righteous indignation or the violent impulse for revenge, but it is no less powerful. The little fish was born with her affliction. Her parents, Jenny (Diane Keaton) and Charlie (Eugene Levy), did their level best to prepare young Dory, lovingly instructing her with songs that they hoped would stick deep within her subconscious. They gave her an opening line for encounters with strangers that recalls Leonard’s, and we see a lost Dory constantly approaching others while swimming along and informing them that she has short-term memory loss. It is heartbreaking, in fact, to see her utter these words and swim around in a circle while waiting for a response, only to return and have to repeat them because she has so quickly forgotten introducing herself.
We see her age as she wanders, having slipped free of any idea or notion that she ever had parents. And in what seems like the blink of an eye, she bumps into Marlin (Albert Brooks), in the midst of a quest to find his lost son Nemo (Hayden Rolence). The good-hearted Dory joins Marlin, and we — those of us who saw Finding Nemo — know that in that film she wound up with a family and a community that would love and protect her.
But in Finding Dory, suddenly and quite randomly, Dory remembers, in a fractured jumble of images and words, that she had a real family, parents of her own, and she sets off to find them with Nemo and Marlin in tow. She, in her own fashion, is just as driven as Memento’s Leonard, but unable to capture these fragments as they emerge from her psyche. She relies on those around her, like Nemo, to repeat the key snippets as they spill from her.
Yet what becomes clear along Dory’s journey is that she doesn’t really need to write notes or tattoo herself to remember. Dory has little use for anything other than her own idiosyncratic will. The mantra that Nemo and Marlin latch onto during that pursuit of her is “What would Dory do?” That’s because when Dory acts instinctively, something good comes as a result. It turns out this is one of the little lessons imprinted by her parents. It is a nugget of wisdom all parents should pass on.
While directors Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo and WALL-E) and Angus MacLane (his first time at the helm of an animated feature) forego the brooding neo-noir that came to define Nolan’s Memento, they paint a vivid picture of an adventurous life lived well. And they inject heartfelt emotion and a thoughtful examination of the necessary links between family and identity into a film geared toward a younger audience. That’s quite a find, if you ask me. (Opens wide Friday) (PG) Grade: A