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Unbearable Cuteness and Sadness Collide in ‘Finding Dory’

Director Andrew Stanton and producer Lindsey Collins’ honest yet sensitive approach to Baby Dory’s traumatic back story both enriches and grounds Pixar’s poignant new film.

'Finding Dory.' All images © 2016 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

WARNING: Contains potential spoilers

With Pixar’s latest animated feature, Finding Dory, set to open today in theatres around the world, audiences will finally learn just how good a job Oscar-winning director Andrew Stanton and his producer, Lindsey Collins, have done in creating a compelling, entertaining and ultimately satisfying story based on Dory, one of the funniest and most fascinating secondary sidekick characters in animated film history.

The film’s success rests squarely on whether or not Stanton and his team have found an honest and convincing way to capture the film’s emotional center and how they share with audiences of all ages many often difficult truths about how we deal with feelings of loss and abandonment. And swimming right smack into the very heart of the film’s emotional core is the character of Baby Dory, cute, adorable and devastatingly vulnerable. Though we can take some comfort in the fact we know Dory eventually turns out OK, the film doesn’t shy away from depicting her childhood trauma and ultimate journey of discovery in often gut-wrenching yet touching ways.

I recently had a chance to speak to Stanton and Collins about Baby Dory, her tremendous cuteness as well as sadness and the creative decision-making used to make her character as loveable and believable as possible.

Dan Sarto: Could you have possibly made baby Dory any cuter, or her situation any sadder?

Andrew Stanton: I don’t think so. We tried [laughs]. We really tried. It’s a combination of Jason Deamer, our character designer, who knows how to do cute until the point that it hurts, as well as finding the best voice we could have ever stumbled upon, which is Lindsey Collin’s daughter.  Lindsey has actually done the scratch for Dory on both movies. We road tested Ellen’s lines beforehand with Lindsey, who’s a pretty good actress. It was the easiest gig I’ve ever had recording a kid because she’d just listen to her mom and mimic her. We got such authenticity and I’d like to think, a little DNA of that Dory instinct.

Lindsey Collins: Baby Dory is played by my daughter. What was fun for me, and what made it work, is that I know Dory’s character so well, so I could sit there in the booth, Andrew could give me direction, and then I could give my daughter direction. She could hear my voice. You know, she’s my daughter, I can make her laugh. In a weird way, she’s a lot like Dory. She’s goofy. There’s a goofiness to her that always shines through.

And Baby Dory’s character design is all eyes. At first, I was fine. I could listen to all that heart-wrenching stuff…until it got animated. The minute they animated those scenes, I actually had to look away a bit. There’s something about the animated performance that became…

DS: Our reaction is very visceral…

LC: …Exactly. They became very visceral.

DS: Separation and loss are some of the most emotionally difficult realities a young child must face and begin to comprehend. There must have been a fine line for you as to how “sad” you could play these key scenes within the story. How did you arbitrate the decisions as to how sad and gut-wrenching Dory’s story should be? How did you determine how far you could push without making the back story too scary for younger kids?

AS: Yeah. Those are tough, tough issues. But when you have four years [to make a film], you have time to explore those boundaries. Initially, all you know is that you’re trying to capture something that is very truthful. Because we know Dory as an adult, and we like her, we know, subconsciously, that no matter how hard it is to watch this back story, she’s going to be OK, because we know she’s OK now. I found that gave me a bit of license to be a bit braver about experiencing what it was like to be scared and lost as a kid. Because you knew, ultimately, it was going to be OK.

I don’t know how it was with you and your kids, but for me, sometimes I had to them ahead of time, “This is going to be a sad story, but it’s going to be OK.” And then you tell them the story. It’s a bit like that on this film.

LC: It’s interesting. We had that whole story up front initially. We kind of showed everything that happened to Dory up front in the beginning of the movie. That was always a line we were trying to walk. We wanted to make sure we showed two things. One, we wanted to make sure we showed the relationship she had with her parents in a way that would make the audience yearn for it too. We needed to give enough time for you to like those parents. At the same time, we couldn’t make it so tragic up front that you couldn’t get into the movie because you were so impacted by the tragedy. So we had to dole it [the backstory] out [to the audience].

Then we realized there was something to be said for rewarding the audience and Dory at the same time with these memories that allowed you to feel like…we don’t show the really traumatic moment until almost the end of the movie.  The first one [past incident Dory’s suddenly remembers about her past] is about mommy, then about daddy, then there’s one about family, and then the last one is about what actually happened. We really did walk the line. We fooled ourselves a bit thinking it would all be fine. Then we started watching the animation and went, “…ugh…that’s hard to watch!” But there was something about knowing she ends up OK, because you know her as an adult and know she’s OK, that allows you to be open when you watch those scenes. You’re not protecting yourself as an audience member…where are they going with this…is she going to be OK? That gave us a bit more leeway in showing what happened.

DS: Those can be painful lessons for kids, the idea that their important people in their lives, like parents, sometimes leave and don’t always come back. One of the emotional experiences I took away from this film is the notion of how we all deal with loss and feelings of abandonment. What do you want your audience to come away with after watching this film?

AS: When I go into the process of writing these films, I feel I’m sitting on top of a universal truth, but I’m not yet sure how to express it or what I want to say about it. I knew WALL-E was about loneliness and love but I didn’t know anything better than that. What exactly am I saying about that? That’s part of the reason I don’t mind working on such a long-term project. That sense of discovery is part of the drug of working on these films. The movie starts to tell you at some point.

So it wasn’t until the last year or year and a half on this film that I started to realize, “Oh, I know I want Dory to like herself, and I knew I want there to be some sense of self-acceptance. But I finally realized the idea that you’re never really at peace until you discover who you truly are.” For her, it was about accepting the fact that her short-term memory loss was who she was. It wasn’t something to be embarrassed about, or to apologize for. In a weird way, the thing that made her unique from everybody else, that no one else could do, made her special. That is something that can be applied to everybody.

I’ve always been a fan of not shying from the reality of what you have to deal with in life. You can handle it with kid gloves, gracefully and artfully. I always felt that was how it was done in my favorite Disney movies. I shared the same semi-trauma of Bambi’s mom dying. But I also had the same cathartic gratefulness that I got to experience it that way.

DS: Absolutely. That’s life.

AS:  How that was handled is a shining example of how to do that cinematically.

Dan Sarto's picture

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