"When you make the finding yourself -- even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light -- you'll never forget it," said astronomer and science populist Carl Sagan. It's apt that the man who spoke of vast space as the "cosmic ocean" should have inadvertently encapsulated Pixar's "Finding Dory," a sequel to 2003 ocean wonder "Finding Nemo."
For the narrative focus has shifted, making forgetful blue tang fish Dory (Ellen DeGeneres, irresistible), the center of attention. A lifelong sufferer of extreme short-term memory loss, Dory may have helped to find young clownfish Nemo (now played by Hayden Rolence) for his neurotic dad Marlon (the great Albert Brooks), but she was never able to find her parents, much less remember how she lost them. "Finding Dory" introduces us to those loving parents (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) in flashback, then returns us to a present where Nemo, Marlon, and Dory make a de facto family, rocked by a sudden memory of her folks that prompts another ocean-spanning reunion mission.
After whiffing with the live-action 3D sci-fi extravaganza "John Carter," director Andrew Stanton returns to sure-fire box office territory here, and indeed "Finding Dory" plays it fairly safe. And while that means it doesn't have the senses of fresh discovery and originality of the initial picture, audiences will feel a comfort early on that they're in good hands with seal-of-quality Pixar and its stylistic hallmarks: dazzling animation, subtle voice work, good humor and heartwarming storytelling.
While microcosmic ocean life is still a focus of sorts, most of "Finding Dory" plays out in the microcosmic world of the Marine Life Institute, "the jewel of Morro Bay, California." There we meet a handful of instantly lovable characters, including testy Hank the octopus (or is that septipus?), voiced by Ed O'Neill; nearsighted whale shark Destiny (Kaitlin Olson of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"); and beluga Bailey (O'Neill's "Modern Family" castmate Ty Burrell), who struggles with his echolocation.
In typical Pixar fashion, the narrative shift of perspective cleverly dovetails with thematic messages for kids. A "kid's zone touch pool" sequence that's delightful for the on-screen kids plays out as a horror show for the fish, prompting reflection about the consequences of inconsiderate behavior. Even the marine park itself, though well-intentioned with its program of "rescue, rehabilitation, and release," blithely creates all of the complications that meddle in the lives of the aquatic characters.
If the plotting at first feels overly familiar (and, in many ways, is), its elegance becomes apparent in the reinvigorating final movements, which also confirm the movie's ultimate theme of building self-confidence through self-discovery. That, plus jokes and adventure, will have kids enthralled and adults, at the very least, feeling no pain. (An adorable new Pixar short, "Piper," precedes the feature.)
Rated PG for mild thematic elements. One hour, 43 minutes.