Turns out it’s not really the most air-tight plan to take half a day off work to see the opening of the summer’s hottest animated movie at 1:00 on an afternoon. Our effort to avoid a crowd backfired as the sea of children filled the theater. But soon there I sat with an arm wrapped around a tub of popcorn, taking in Pixar’s newest film, the long awaited Finding Dory.
Something happened about five minutes into the movie—I realized that we weren’t watching just a funny sequel about the forgetful blue tang that we’ve loved for years. We were watching a movie about disability. And it made me feel like a jerk for laughing at Dory’s “natural blue” tendencies all this time.
Through flashbacks, we learn that Dory has a long history of memory issues—a sort of mental handicap. “I have short-term remembery loss,” she tells people when introducing herself—a warning, an apology, a label, a plea for patience and help, her identity.
After becoming separated from her parents, Dory searches for a new friend—someone she can depend on. But her search turns up one creature after another unwilling to be her dorsal fin to lean on—that is, until she collides with a frantic Marlin, chasing a boat and looking for his son. Of course this is where Finding Nemo picks up; Finding Dory really begins after Nemo has been found and Dory is living where Nemo and Marlin can look after her.
When an accident almost costs Nemo his life, up-tight Marlin snaps back into his over-protective, over-reactive ways and tells Dory that all she’s good for is forgetting things. Like most good titles, Finding Dory probes deeper, past a mere search for a fish lost in the ocean. Marlin’s accusation sets in motion the details that will launch Dory’s journey toward remembering the past she can’t recall and thereby finding herself.
The theme of overcoming disabilities isn’t entirely original, of course. Finding Nemo broached this topic through Nemo’s “lucky” fin and Gil’s mangled one.
We learn, even in the first movie, that Dory has found ways to cope with her disability; for instance, she chants what she’s supposed to remember: “42 Wallaby Way, Sydney; 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney” or “Two lefts and a right; two lefts and a right” (a method I use for my own bouts of short term memory loss).
But Dory thrives especially when she’s surrounded by helpful creatures: parents who never gave up on her and worked patiently to help strengthen her memory (in some ways the opposite of Marlin who shielded Nemo rather than enabled him), and Nemo who watches out for Dory and believes in her. When Dory is captured by workers at an aquarium, she meets new friends—Bailey, a Beluga whale with echolocation anxiety, and Destiny the whale shark with near sightedness who both offer their unique skills to aid in Dory’s quest.
Then there’s Hank, the septopus with a sketchy backstory (that I’m hoping will be fleshed out in his own movie or at least a short.) We don’t know why he’s missing a tentacle, but he’s not happy about it. All this misanthropic mollusk wants is to board a truck bound for Cleveland, to live out his days in the solitude of an aquarium (probably tucked under a rock like every octopus I’ve ever encountered). Hank is quite the contrast to Dory who just wants to find her family and get back to the sea.
Seeing an ideal opportunity, Hank strikes a deal with Dory—he’ll take her to the Open Ocean exhibit, where she believes her parents are, in exchange for the tag that the aquarium placed on Dory’s fin, which Hank recognizes as his ticket to Cleveland. Together, with Hank’s angst and Dory’s chatty optimism, they maneuver through the aquarium and into a friendship.
Like Gil’s tough love attitude helped Nemo overcome his self-doubt, Hank’s (albeit begrudging) assistance gives Dory the boost she needs to finish her journey. Even his somewhat disparaging comments seem to bolster Dory’s tenacity.
No doubt Dory is the titular character, but she’s not the only one who learns and grows. Through her shortcomings and perseverance, her friends slowly discover their own role in helping Dory and letting Dory help herself. In return, Dory encourages others to take risks and believe in themselves. And in the end, she even challenges the selfish cephalopod Hank to embrace the world (presumably with all remaining seven arms).
Finding Dory is a good reminder for us to be patient and willing to support others who might have limitations or even those who just need a little guidance and care. But maybe more importantly, Dory’s tale reveals the influence we all have on one another, even, or maybe especially, those with disabilities.
At the end of the story, Marlin apologizes for his short temper and misgivings of Dory—he apologizes for not being a better friend. After seeing what Dory is capable of, he’s ashamed of himself for ever doubting her. Maybe he’s ashamed of how much stronger Dory is than he is. But the nice thing is that no one bashed Marlin, no one guilted him into apologizing or started picketing for Dory’s rights as a disabled person or quibbled with him about terminology and equality. Dory was, herself, the impetus that made Marlin realize his error. Her courage and tenacity humbled him, her actions speaking louder than angry, entitled words. (This was also a good reminder, by the way, that we don’t always overcome our flaws overnight. Like Marlin apologizing for his short temper with Dory, a trait carried over from Finding Nemo, becoming a better person is a constant practice of making good choices, apologizing when we don’t, and trying again.)
There’s a lot to take away from Finding Dory,* new lessons and challenging themes along with some familiar mantras such as “just keep swimming.” But the larger message isn’t so much to just keep swimming, but to stop swimming and help or cheer on someone who needs what we have to offer—and to be open to what they have to offer us in return.
*There’s a lot to take away and people certainly have. Check out the many articles that are circulating on this topic of Dory and disabilities. Here are just three that I found compelling.
- Finding Dory, Disability, and Me
- ‘Finding Dory’ Isn’t Just about Disability — It’s about Community and Support
- How Finding Dory Could Change the Conversation Around Disabilities
Author’s Note: Remember, Dory and Marlin are beautiful creatures, but they belong in their natural habitats. Encourage others to view clown fish and blue tangs in the ocean or in a professional aquarium. For more info, read this article on the topic.