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The Ultimate Sidekick Finally Discovers Herself in Pixar’s ‘Finding Dory’

For director Andrew Stanton and producer Lindsey Collins, ‘Finding Nemo’s eternally upbeat memory-impaired blue tang fish has a compelling and important journey of her own worth sharing.

Almost 13 years to the day after the release of Pixar’s Oscar-winning Finding Nemo, the long awaited and closely guarded sequel Finding Dory will begin hitting cinemas around the globe this June 17th. In the new film, Dory’s happy life on the reef with Nemo and Marlin is jolted by her sudden realization she has been separated from her family, who may still be out looking for her. The ensuing journey across the ocean to California’s Marine Life Institute rehabilitation center and aquarium, the new friends she meets along the way, all change her in ways she never imagined possible.

Four plus years in the making, Finding Dory is written and directed by long-time Pixar brain trust stalwart and Nemo director and scribe Andrew Stanton, who finally decided he had a follow-up story worth telling. But not without two difficult years struggling to figure out how to turn Dory, a supporting comedic character from Nemo, into a central lead that audiences would find compelling and worth caring about.

Stanton concedes he took on a potentially thankless task with the project. “I know. I’m a glutton for punishment,” he concedes about the concept of finding a plausible story for a character who essentially provided comic relief in the first film. “It was the bane of our existence through the whole making of the film. I kept complaining every day, going, ‘Who the hell thought of this character? I hate them.’ She was wired up to be a supporting character. She was built to be the ultimate sidekick.”

According to Lindsey Collins, the film’s producer, even after a year of story development, the team was vexed about the direction they should be taking with the new film. It wasn’t until Stanton revealed a critical Dory backstory, almost by accident and to the astonishment of the story group, that they started figuring out what her character was all about. “It was after about a year, a couple drafts of this script, and we were all sitting, heads in our hands after getting session notes back, and feeling like we were not hitting it. Somebody said, ‘Well, I just don't understand why she would do that.’ Andrew said, ‘Because obviously she wandered for years alone in the ocean before she met Marlin.’ Everybody was like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Well, that's the backstory. She was alone forever.’ It was like, ‘What?’ Andrew’s like, ‘I never told you that?’ Everybody said, ‘That would have been good to know.’ Andrew said, ‘Oh right, I should probably tell you guys about that.’"

Collins explains that ultimately, that backstory proved to be the basis for Dory’s journey in the new film. “That was never explicitly said, but it was always something you felt was the experience she was coming from, the fear of being alone, where nobody would stick with her. That led to her breakdown at the end of the first film. That fear, that she hadn't gotten over, was what made you want to do the second film.”

Dory’s character focuses on helping others at the expense of dealing with her own fears of being alone. Once the story team understood the essence of her character, they could begin to piece together her new story. Says Stanton, “The thing that slowly led us out of the fog was we should embrace that fear in the story itself. That's her issue. She has spent her whole life making sure everybody else got what they needed, basically driven by an internal fear of being alone. She deserved to not be driven by fear anymore, to embrace that, and to know that that's her superpower and not her weakness. It took about two years for us to realize that self-reflection is necessary to track growth in her as a main character.”

An underlying sadness in Dory’s Finding Nemo character is at the heart of her journey in the new film. Looking back at Nemo, you realize Dory is more than just comedy gold. As Stanton explains, “Everybody walks away [from Finding Nemo] going, ‘She made me laugh, she made me smile, she's such a fun character, I like her.’ But subconsciously, I think everybody knows she's a tragic character because how else can you show, right at the end of the movie, she starts getting upset that he's [Marlin] leaving her? She breaks down, and nobody questions it. Nobody questions it because I think there's no way your brain doesn't go, ‘How can Dory be alone in the ocean and not have some trauma come from that, not have some loss and some tragedy from that?’”

Stanton determined there was no way to move forward on a new movie until they properly addressed this almost unspoken aspect of her character. Says the director, “There's no way we can address this simply. We have to really indulge. You forget how dark the first movie is. It's a dark movie -- it's a dramatic movie. It's just got a lot of funny things in it, but it's more dark and dramatic than people think.”

Once Stanton understood the new film needed to address Dory’s sense of loss and fear of being alone, once that core “problem” was solved, the next hurdle was finding ways to weave that into a story about a fish with short term memory loss in ways that wouldn’t bore or annoy an audience. Notes the director, “Just to diagnose and realize that was the problem took about a year and a half into making the movie. Then, to solve that problem, we had a million answers.”

To push the story forward in a meaningful way, they came up with a set of characters that in essence, would guide Dory along the path of her journey. As Stanton describes, “We just had to keep coming up with other characters to speak for her. Someone like Hank [an octopus being rehabilitated at the Institute], to be present with us through the whole journey, that is self-aware of what's going on and can keep reminding her. That’s huge. Once we owned it and once we understood that that was the issue, we could look for it, we could deal with it, and find cinematic ways to do it. I don't want to give away the movie or anything, but we managed to do it. I would not recommend it, and I would never want to do that again. But we solved that one and it was a huge problem.”

Another challenge in crafting Dory’s new story was the inherent difficulty balancing the drama and “humor” derived from a character who essentially is mentally challenged. According to Collins, “We really struggled with that. That was a most delicate dance, as we wrote and animated her. The good thing was, was when we didn't do it right, everybody knew it. You would watch it and be like, ‘That doesn't feel right.’ We were either playing her too dumb or playing it too mean. It doesn't feel true to her. She's stronger than that. She seems too weak. It's both the burden and the gift. We knew her very well, or at least we thought we did. Nobody was a harsher critic than me on whether or not we were being true to this character. Meaning, it was instantaneous. You'd put it up, we'd watch it and say, ‘It's not working. She's coming off really annoying. Or ditsy.’ She was none of those things in the first film. The challenge was trying to find that balance of being true to who she was, and trying to allow her to grow, not fix her.”

Even though it’s been 13 years since Nemo was released, Stanton felt the insecurity and angst returning as he struggled with the new story. He explains, “I remember at the time I made Nemo, in the middle of making the film, it was a hard movie to watch with an audience because it didn't feel familiar or similar to all the other movies we had done. We’d had Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug's Life, and Monsters. There was a consistent amount of vocalization and laughter that you would hear during all those movies. You would watch Nemo and it would be long long long long long, minutes and minutes and minutes of silence, and then a laugh, and then long long long silence. I thought, ‘Oh, we're bombing. We're bombing.’ But No. It was a different beast. That's the thing that I realized -- it's a very emotional and engaging dramatic movie.”

Keeping true to his characters has been just as important in Finding Dory. Says Stanton, “What I remember viscerally from Nemo was worrying not so much whether or not it would ‘be’ a flop, but what would ‘cause’ it to flop. What I worried about was, what I remember saying was, ‘Am I telling an ABC after school special?’ It's just so direct, a dad saying he misses his son. I just didn't want to be treacly. I would listen to Nine Inch Nails The Fragile every day to keep myself dark, so I somehow felt I could balance things. I wanted it to be honest. This new film, I'm going to keep coming back to it because it really was the issue. It was just, ‘How the hell do I keep Dory interesting from a main character's job standpoint, and at the same time, not neuter what makes her so interesting?’”

For the Dory story team, it all came down to deftly handling the transition from sidekick to main character. As Stanton describes, “Frankly, we call it the ‘Clark Kent Disease.’ Almost anybody that's a main character ends up having to play the role serious. It was the same thing with Marlin. He ends up being the straight man. He's the greatest straight man and knows how to play the comedy so that the moments were funnier. But, he became the butt of the joke, or assisted in a joke, but wasn't the one delivering the punch line. Dory got to do all that.” But in the new film, Dory’s role as comedienne has drastically changed. Says Stanton, “Dory, I knew as a main character, probably wasn't going to get that opportunity as often. It's how to find the interest. I knew the answer would always be, if you're staying true to the storyline of what's going on with her, and you keep that engaging, it'll iron itself out. That was the bigger risk. Keeping it engaging.”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.