I spend a lot of time discussing and writing about films with special attention paid to their anthropological and theological themes. But I’ll be the first to admit that Christians are often guilty of hijacking popular films or other works of literature in search of too-tidy illustrations for our own values or narratives. I offer this disclaimer to admit I unapologetically regard Finding Nemo—whether or not this has anything to do with the filmmakers’ original intent—as one of the most poignant, compelling portrayals of God’s relentless, self-sacrificial pursuit of God’s children I’ve ever seen on screen. Amid the silliness of its fish eaters’ support group and its cohort of surfer sea turtles is Marlin’s relentless, courageous pursuit of his lost son. And though Marlin’s overprotective, anxious attitude toward Nemo doesn’t capture God’s attitude toward us, Marlin’s unceasing commitment to Nemo certainly shows us something of God.
What I can say about my expectations for Pixar’s new sequel, Finding Dory, is that I mostly feared it would fail spectacularly enough to spoil the franchise; I somewhat hoped it would provide another sweet, more-complex-than-most-animated-fare addition to Pixar’s canon; and I hoped to a small degree it might achieve the same emotional depth as the original. Fortunately, Finding Dory lands somewhere between the second and third options. It’s undeniably sillier and more cartoonish than its predecessor to a fault, asking us to suspend our disbelief beyond “fish can talk and demonstrate unconditional love” to “saltwater fish can survive in anything resembling water, and octopuses can do mostly anything they want, including driving a truck on the highway with no apparent casualties.”
But Finding Dory certainly also has emotional depth; Dory’s condition of short-term memory loss lends her a sort of supernatural inclination to buoyant optimism and creativity but also leaves her vulnerable to danger and generates significant emotional strain for those who love her. One particularly haunting montage near the beginning of the film—on par with Pixar’s other darkest, boldest moments—reveals Dory as a young child being separated from her parents, struggling at first to remember details about them as she asks strangers for help and then, as she ages, struggling to remember what she’s searching for in the first place.
The emergence of many of these lost memories sends Dory, along with her friends-who-are-family Marlin and Nemo, on another ocean-spanning search for Dory’s home and family of origin. One of the major delights of Finding Nemo was the humor it drew from contrasting Marlin’s constant worried planning with Dory’s one-step-at-a-time spontaneity, and Finding Dory doubles down on that theme by separating the two from each other. “What would Dory do?” Marlin finds himself asking, and if the film seems to too narrowly prefer Dory’s impulsive way of being, notice how the film makes clear that she functions best in a community that balances her free-spirited ingenuity with planners and big-picture thinkers.
Where the film’s heart lies, though, is in Dory’s ongoing struggle to define herself as memories of her origins dance in and out of her mind. All of Dory’s recollections of her parents reveal them to be loving, generous, and patient guardians, but—at the risk of spoiling one important third-act emotional turn—the circumstances of Dory’s departure leave her feeling at least some uncertainty about the sort of reception she’ll encounter if she can find her parents at all. If Nemo showed us something of God’s pursuit of us, Dory pivots toward our pursuit of God, to all the longing and hesitation that can involve when we aren’t certain about where the pursuit will lead.
At the risk of hijacking not only this film but also its depiction of a real-world condition (i.e., short-term memory loss), for the sake of my own values or narrative, Dory’s struggles in this film resonate with the way I often experience my life as a Christian as a sort of perpetual struggle to remember: to remember who I am in relationship with God, to remember what God has revealed to us as true about the world and about human nature, to remember what’s important and what’s not important on a cosmic scale. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus tells the disciples when he breaks bread and pours wine that represent his body and blood, and I’d argue that one of the primary reasons the church gathers in worship and practices the sacraments is that we need nearly constant reminders—weekly, at the very least—of what is true. “Just keep swimming,” Dory continues to sing when she doesn’t know what else to do, a mantra that reminds us why it’s essential we choose carefully what hymns or memory verses or prayers we’ll rehearse so often they come to us reflexively when we can’t tell up from down.
Finding Dory would be an entirely different film if Dory’s parents weren’t benevolent, painted in a nearly angelic light in her ephemeral flashes of recollection. But I suspect the central theme would be the same: While the filmmakers make it clear that Dory’s past is a key ingredient in the full portrait of who she is, what ultimately defines her is her choices and her character, her decisions of how or whether to pursue her past and what to do about what she finds. We are less than our fullest selves, the film seems to suggest, if we lose our origins into the Memory Dump (to borrow an image from another of Pixar’s most retrospective films, Inside Out); but any given person’s ideal relationship with their own past, whether to grieve it or embrace it or reject it or even to imitate it, probably depends on their circumstances. “I look at you, and I’m home,” Dory tells Marlin in Finding Nemo, and Finding Dory expands the concept of home into something we’re always recalling, always rediscovering, always creating and recreating. Sometimes finding home takes looking more closely at the people around you, and sometimes it takes gazing inward at long-forgotten memories.