The genius of the best Disney animated films, from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" to “Frozen,” rests in telling stories through young eyes that connect with children and parents on different levels (catchy songs help, too).
"Finding Nemo," which made its splash via Disney's Pixar in 2003, tweaked the formula, beyond eschewing tunes. Sure, plenty of scenes featured the title character, a plucky little lost clown fish with a "lucky" fin. But for once, a Disney film unfolded largely through the point of view of a parent: Nemo's overprotective father, Marlin.
The film's breakout character, though, proved of indeterminate age: the childlike Dory, a fearless flake short on memory and somehow long on the ability to read English.
The Disney fish tale gets a new chapter Friday with the release of a sequel with parents again in key roles: "Finding Dory," in which the blue tang searches for her long lost mother and father. The latest aquatic family mission might not prove as difficult, though, as recreating the magic that turned "Nemo" into an instant favorite among kids now around college age and their parents.
The visually appealing "Finding Nemo" wasn't the fanciest Pixar production, but it swam straight to the heart with its story of a father's determination to find the son he inadvertently drove into danger while trying to shield him from life’s uncertainties.
Albert Brooks gave angst-and-love-filled voice to Marlin, who paid a steep price for refusing to let go. Ellen DeGeneres helped create a classic comic character in Dory, who might or might not be able to speak whale, but sounded the power of persistence with her motto, "Just keep swimming!"
"Finding Dory" goes up not just against memories of “Nemo,” but the specter of Pixar’s two greatest films: “Toy Story 3” and “Inside Out.” Both movies expanded the familial themes of “Nemo” into more emotionally complex explorations of the bittersweet mix of joy and pain that accompanies growing up.
Dory’s charm is buoyed by her seeming simplicity, but “Nemo” suggested her waters run deep, even if they’re clouded by the limits of her memory. The name of the new film might seem like a misnomer (why not call it “Finding Dory’s Parents”?), but perhaps the title signals a more significant quest: Dory’s search for her own identity.
That’s expecting a lot, but we can only ask of Disney/Pixar what Dory asks of herself: Just keep swimming.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.