Finding Dory and how Pixar champion characters with disabilities

29 Jul 2016 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

8 mins
Finding Dory
Finding Dory

As Finding Dory begins, the forgetful blue-tang fish is living happily in the reef with Marlin and Nemo, a year after their adventures in the first film. Dory is now working as a teaching assistant in Nemo's school, until she suddenly remembers that she has a birth family of her own somewhere who are looking for her, and recruits Marlin, Nemo, and a host of new faces to join her on a journey across the ocean to try and track them down. If only she could remember where they were...

It's been 13 years since Finding Nemo, during which time director Andrew Stanton (who also made Wall-E) found himself concerned with what might have happened to Dory after the first film, suffering as she does from short-term memory loss, meaning she often forgets things mere moments after they have occurred.

Despite all of her perkiness and optimism, Dory's short-term memory loss has made her frightened of what might happen if she gets seperated from her adoptive family. Even as she accepts everybody she comes across, no matter who they are, Dory still struggles to deal with her own shortcomings.

Although Dory can't always remember the people she meets, she retains emotional memories - particularly how it felt to be separated from her real family, and her feelings of loss. During Finding Dory we see her frequently apologising for who she is, suggesting that her sunny personality may also be concealing some more complex emotions. As the film progresses, Dory comes to realise that she should never apologise for being herself, or feel like she has to change, and that allowing herself to feel frustrated and frightened at times can be a good thing. She also never forgets the most important emotion of all: how to love.

The film deals with what memory means to us and the role it plays in our relationships, particularly within families. Using animation to introduce young people to complex issues has become something of a Pixar trademark, following Inside Out's exploration of the mechanics of the human mind; Wall-E's tale of environmentalism and loneliness, and Up's take on grief, to name but a few. Its not just Pixar though - the films of Laika, Studio Ghibli, Aardman and even the Despicable Me franchise are all constantly demonstrating that the world of animation has never been as rich, as fun and as ambitious as it is today.

For Nemo, life has returned to normal following his earlier adventures, and although only one year has passed in the ocean, thirteen years have passed in real life (and even longer since the film began production), meaning that 7-year-old Alexander Gould - who voiced Nemo in the original - is now 22! As such, the filmmakers had to recast the role and find a young person who sounded convincingly like the same character. Keep your ears peeled for Alexander though, as he does appear in the film as a totally new character. Lots of other familiar faces are back too, including a cameo from Crush, the coolest turtle in all the ocean!

Although Finding Dory introduces lots of diverse, colourful new friends to the ocean - including Destiny, a nearsighted whale shark, and Bailey, a beluga whale convinced his biological sonar skills are on the fritz - the most prominent new face is perhaps Hank, a rather grumpy octopus - or 'septopus', given that he's lost one of his tentacles! Hank is not looking for a friend, but rather a ticket to what he sees as an easy and quiet life away from everybody else. Creating and animating Hank, with his multiple arms and unique movements, was one of the biggest challenges Pixar has ever faced. Not only that, but they had to make sure that audiences would fall in love with the character, and not just see him as a grouchy octopus. The first shot of Hank took an incredible six months to produce!

Hank wasn't initially conceived as a 'septopus', but the animators couldn't find a way to convincingly portray him from all angles with eight arms and so requested that he only have seven instead. Andrew Stanton loved the idea, not just for its practical and comic potential, but because it also fits into Hank's background in a rescue and rehabilitation facility, as well as fitting the broader topic of presenting characters with disabilities within the film.

Hank is based on the mimic octopus, a creature with the ability to transform itself and mimic other creatures in order to ward off potential predators. It can also camouflage itself against the seabed, or against whatever its background happens to be; streamline its body, and can use the hundreds of suckers on its arms to manipulate items, or to attach itself to almost any surface. The animators spent a long time studying these remarkable creatures before beginning the animation process, but they also looked to cinema for inspiration as well, studying the movements of Kaa, the menacing snake in 1967's The Jungle Book, and exploring the parallels between his gliding movements and those of the octopus's arms.

Much of the film takes place at the Marine Life Institute, a facility for injured marine life in California, where Dory hopes to find her parents. Based on a real location, the tanks and aquariums contain the same multitude of life as the ocean itself. The original plan was to feature an aquatic theme park, but because of the impact of hard-hitting documentary Blackfish, which exposed some of the unethical and dangerous practices of such attractions, the filmmakers changed the site to a Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre.

Finding Dory is about looking after the world around us, helping people who are less fortunate or more vulnerable than we are, accepting other people's differences and learning to accept ourselves for who we are. Even if Dory were to find her parents, she wouldn't abandon her adoptive family in Marlin and Nemo, but rather take things from both groups; her family wouldn't change, but simply grow.

At the US box-office, Finding Dory has already become the most successful animation of all time, so perhaps Dory, Nemo and Marlin may yet find themselves swimming into more new adventures in the future. Whether or not this happens, the filmmakers will be asking themselves one question: What would Dory do?

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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