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By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
It was shortly after I finished watching the 2016 Pixar release Finding Dory on DVD that I realized I have absolutely no clue what constitutes children's programming anymore.
The movie is the usual, phenomenally-successful Pixar property, a sequel to one of the studio's most popular films, and when it was announced as a Summer, 2016 release most box-office prognosticators predicted that it would become the studio's biggest hit — which it did, making over $480 million domestically, and passing Star Wars: Episode 1 as the seventh biggest film of all time. (Though it's soon to be passed by Rogue One, the latest Star Wars installment.) The critics fell all over Finding Dory, as they usually do for all Pixar releases, and most of the praise reinforced the by-now accepted notion that Pixar is a genre-busting, trailblazing leader who continues to revolutionize the idea of what animation and children's storytelling can become.
And while it's hard not to recognize the sheer talent and wit and complexity that went into the production of Finding Dory — that goes into the production of all Pixar movies, for that matter — it's also impossible to ignore that Finding Dory has one teeny, tiny flaw that keeps it from becoming an all-time classic kids movie: it ain't for kids. Outside of that, it's perfect. I'm not sure who the movie is for, exactly — Pixar always seems to be gunning for the largest demographic imaginable in every movie (and they've been successful at it: the total worldwide gross for all 17 Pixar movies is over $10 billion dollars) — but I'm convinced that Finding Dory only provokes alienation and bewilderment from any kid who attempts to watch it.
Unless your kid is into existential conundrums about identity and purpose, of course, which I'll certainly allow as being possible; kids do seem to be tackling adult material at an early age these days. But for the ones who are looking for a funny, cute little movie about smiling orange fish in a deep blue sea while learning a tiny, little lesson about life — well, you're in the wrong ocean. Finding Dory has other, more important fish to fry.
If you want to know what's the central difference between Finding Nemo and Finding Dory is, it's this: in the first movie, Dory's short-term memory loss was played strictly for laughs. In this movie, it's treated somberly, as a disability. I guess this is a daring, ambitious choice for a movie, but it sucks all the fun out of the movie almost immediately. And what's left is a surprisingly joyless lump.
This seems to happen a lot in Pixar movies, especially the "prestige" ones, where the filmmakers decide to sacrifice sparkling, playful kid fun for weighty and layered adult themes. It feels odd to slam any work of art for begin too ambitious, but that's the very thing that bothers me about Finding Dory and Up and Wall-E and even Toy Story 3. I'm not sure who's five-year old really enjoyed the cynical, anti-consumerist jokiness of "Wall-E," I just know it wasn't my kid. And while Up may have been one of the only three animated movies to be nominated for "Best Picture" (Toy Story 3 and Beauty and the Beast were the others), its endless plot machinations and heavy-duty takes on mortality will crush and kids attention span. No kid is mature enough for this kind of storytelling. I'm not even sure that I'm mature enough for it.
But you know, colorful balloons and a talking dog and a kid, right? That ought to balance everything out. And I guess it does, for a little while, for there's always plentiful incidental pleasures to be had in every Pixar movie, even the portentous ones. I just wish the filmmakers would concentrate on making fun, zippy little kids movies instead of using them to try to encapsulate the entirety of human emotion and experience every time out.
This isn't a rallying cry for pablum, by the way. My kids have no patience for stories that strive for inoffensiveness and safety and blandness; all those huggy, positive, "lesson" stories leave them absolutely cold. And they make me insane with rage; I'm forever plotting vengeful, violent acts against the creators of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood and the writer of Guess How Much I Love You. For some reason I hate bad children's stories more than I hate bad works in just about any other genre; it offends me to a much higher degree.
This could be because I'm unbalanced, of course, but I'm hoping it's because I appreciate the "good" children's writers so much that I hate the pretenders. The "good" children's writers just have a knack for engaging a child's imagination without condescending to them; it's a trick that's nearly impossible to pull off, yet the good writers do it, time and time again. And they also have an innate understanding and appreciation for the pure anarchy of childhood. When you read Dr. Seuss or Maurice Sendak, for instance, you can't help noticing the bounding energy and absurdism. They're both optimistic, joyful writers, but they don't apologize for goofing off, either.
It's a shoo-in that Finding Dory will win the Oscar for "Best Animated Feature" this year — virtually every Pixar film gets nominated, after all, and the studio has won the award eight of the ten years since the award's inception. But I hope the certainty of the award won't embolden Pixar to keep making more of the same; no matter how phenomenally successful the movies are, I think it's time for the studio to make a drastic, philosophical change. I think it's time for Pixar to abandon the technologically stupendous, narrative-intense stories of human triumph and sacrifice and make kids movies instead.