Lost & Found: Pixar Returns to the Ocean in ‘Finding Dory’

Who knew that the lovable blue tang with short-term memory loss would be so hard to forget?

After Finding Nemo, director Andrew Stanton moved on to other projects, satisfied in knowing he had fully resolved the story of the missing little clownfish. His next Pixar project, WALL-E, became arguably one of the best films in Pixar’s history—and of the last decade in general. Stanton says now that, at the time, he only knew one thing for certain: “The last thing I was ever going to do was a sequel to Finding Nemo.”

That attitude began to change in 2010, seven years after the film’s release. Although Nemo’s story had ended happily, Stanton says he felt there was still something unresolved in the animated ocean world he’d helped create. “I couldn’t stop thinking about Dory,” he admits. “I always knew she was a tragic figure.” He—and, let’s face it, the rest of the world—had fallen in love with the forgetful blue tang, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, who had helped find Nemo in the original.

Stanton remained tight-lipped on the project, however, knowing the excitement and anticipation that would ensue if word got out about his plans for a follow-up. “I knew that if I said the words ‘Finding Anything,’ it would start a snowball. So I was very cautious. In 2010, I had a notion of wanting to resolve Dory’s issues and that there might be a whole story there, but I waited until late 2012 to say it out loud—even internally. It was just too loaded.” By that time, with Dory still swimming in his mind, Stanton knew he needed to have the rest of her story told.

Finding Nemo wasn’t only a critical and commercial hit when it was released in 2003—it also struck a cultural nerve that has made it one of Pixar’s most beloved films to date. Although Monsters, Inc. was released in November 2001, Nemo had been in development well before the tragic events of September 11, and in many ways it served as a thematic link to the post-9/11 social climate, with its lurking sense of vulnerability: how can we keep our composure in such a dangerous world? In 2002, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld might have put it best when he addressed “known unknowns”—the frightening things we’re aware we don’t know about—and the “unknown unknowns”—the threats we are unable to anticipate because we haven’t even conceptualized them. Rumsfeld’s words spoke of a danger that might not be tangible but is certainly real. For parents, the message of Finding Nemo was more universalhow to find the peace of mind necessary to let a child go out into the world on his own. Will he come back? Can he find his own way home?

When Marlin, Nemo’s overprotective father (Albert Brooks), first meets Dory, she is a crucial and loyal companion in Marlin’s journey to overcome his own neurosis and cross the ocean to find his son. The sequel’s themes swim even closer to these ideas of family and personal identity. Finding Dory focuses on the blue tang’s search for her own parents, a matter complicated by her inability to retain much of the information she uncovers. Enlisting the help of Marlin and Nemo, Dory heads out to the Marine Life Institute, a rehabilitation center and aquarium, where she believes she’ll be able to find answers to her parents’ whereabouts. Once she arrives at the MLI, Dory counts on the assistance of three equally quirky friends: Hank, a cranky octopus with a missing tentacle (Ed O’Neill); Destiny, a near-sighted whale shark who could use some swimming lessons (Kaitlin Olson); and Bailey, a beluga whale who’s lost his faith in his own sonar skills (Ty Burrell). “I love the thought that we’re all wired up differently, and the more we can accept that rather than fight it, the faster we’re going to figure out what our superpowers are,” says producer Lindsey Collins. “That’s what’s so great about Dory, her sense of embracing it and doing things her own way. This idea of whatever that is, you’re going to get there on your own. And that’s a great reminder as a parent: it’s going to be fine, let them do it.

“Each one of these characters has something different about them,” says Collins, although she emphasizes that the production team never wanted to look at these differences as disabilities. “What I love about it is that Dory doesn’t talk about any of it. The only person she apologizes for in the beginning is herself. Unintentionally, [this movie] was about making sure that by the end she’s not apologizing for herself.”

A 13-year gap between the two films also meant that the production team approached the sequel with a fresh set of creative tools. Finding Dory was made using Pixar’s latest technology, giving the film a notable visual boost but creating a situation in which filmmakers had to be careful to ensure a stylistic link to the original. The storyboarding process on the film lasted three and a half years, with the team sending a total of 103,639 storyboards to Pixar’s editorial department. The biggest challenge of the production, however, came with the design of Hank, the cantankerous octo—excuse me, septopus—who has the ability to use camouflage.

“I’ve been at Pixar for 18 years, and Hank is definitely the most interesting character I’ve ever worked on,” says character art director Jason Deamer. Hank’s ability to blend into virtually any of his surroundings is one of the most entertaining parts of the movie, as he takes the shape of anything from a tiled wall to a potted plant. Given how well the conceit works in the finished film, it’s surprising to learn how hard it was to pull off. According to character supervisor Jeremy Talbot, that’s because not only did Hank have to blend in, he had to do so while moving like a real octopus. Animators had previously addressed challenges such as these by simply bringing the object of their study—i.e., a live animal—into the office to be observed at close range, as occurred during the production of Ratatouille. With Hank, however, the Pixar team made the easy decision not to bring an octopus onto its campus. Character supervisor Michael Stoker explains the very good reason for this decision: “It would get out of the tank and escape in two minutes.”

“Nobody plans to make a sequel 13 years later. It’s a labor of love for the animators,” says Stanton when looking back on the decision to make the film. Although he was fully aware that there would be close attention and pressure to deliver as soon as the project was announced, Stanton was confident going into Finding Dory once he found an angle for the story he wanted to tell—even if it took more than a decade for that idea to come to him. “That’s why the release dates move and the order [of films] changes. One thing we’re not going to do is force ourselves to release something that’s not good enough. It may make the pattern of release strange, but at least it’s driven by the right thing.”

It’s part of the Pixar DNA, if you will, the adherence to story above all else. For Stanton, who has been with the company since the release of its first feature, that commitment to story is central to Pixar’s success. “The only thing that got us through Toy Story was that we didn’t think we were going to get the chance to do it again. We knew the technology better than anybody and we knew it was going to be the ugliest picture we ever made. That it would look limited much sooner than anybody would want it to. So we said, what are the films that are so technologically limited but that we still watch?” Stanton remembers the room coming up with The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, all films with a story that transcend their respective technological barriers.

“We would always say, ‘We’re in it for the grandkids, not the kids.’ Meaning we’re in it for the long ball, hoping it would go past one generation to the next without any of the hoopla of being the first fully computer-animated film ever. If you strip all that away, and the context of all that changes, and this is found on a chip somewhere and watched decades later—will it still stand?

“That’s been our rule ever since.”

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