It was instant-classic time when Pixar released Finding Nemo in 2003. The sequel, Finding Dory, puts heat on Andrew Stanton (and co-director Angus MacLane) to hit the same sweet spot. Stanton wisely eases into it, reuniting us with Nemo (Hayden Rolence) and his clown-fish dad, Marlin (an anxiously comic Albert Brooks). But this time it's Marlin's sidekick Dory, the blue tang immortally voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, who takes the star spot and swims with it.
She's a scatterbrained delight. And, like Nemo, she's a lost child, which adds an undertow of genuine feeling to the proceedings. Dory has gone missing. Plagued, as ever, by short-term memory loss, she can't remember how to find her parents (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy). Disability is a tough subject for a family film to take on, but Finding Dory does it bravely and with courageous spirit. At the marine institute where she was born, she gets help from whale shark Destiny (Kaitlin Olson) and beluga Bailey (Ty Burrell). But Dory, who can't remember things, needs to reach the open sea. And now, scarily, Nemo and Marlin can't find her.
Dependent on the kindness of strangers, Dory is befriended by Hank (Ed O'Neill, pricelessly funny and touching), an acrobatic octopus and shapeshifter who can even disguise himself as a potted plant. Hank has his own emotional issues, starting with the fact that he's lost a tentacle and is really a septipus; held in captivity, he also hates to be touched and dreams of being free. Stanton doesn't flinch from the fear and loneliness at the core of his story. (One scene, in a petting pond where kiddie hands grab at terrified fish, wouldn't be out of place in a Stephen King story.) If Finding Dory lacks the fresh surprise of its predecessor, it still brims with humor, heart and animation miracles. Over the end credits, Sia sings "Unforgettable." She got that right.