Note: Yes, we are talking about Finding Dory. No, I am not revealing any significant plot points. But seriously: what kind of surprises are you expecting to find in a Pixar film, anyway?
I was sitting with my husband Maury and our friend Vicki in a recently-emptied movie theater this afternoon, waiting for the final credits to run on Finding Dory, when I leaned over and said to him, “I know what you’re thinking.”
“What’s that?” Maury’s an animation fan; he and Vicki have been going to Pixar movies as close to the opening weekends as possible since long before I met him. Now we go together. Also, I know him pretty well.
“You’re thinking: There’s no villain in this film,” I said.
He nodded. Finding Nemo, you know, has no real villain. A misguided child, but no real “bad guy.” Stuff happens, Nemo is taken, he has to be found. Finding Dory is the same kind of gentle storytelling.
I then said, “When you’re ready, I’ll tell you who the villain is in the film.”
We were alone in the theater not because no one had come to see the movie – the showing was packed with every kind of Brooklynite you could imagine, including the muumuu-wearing older woman behind me who made a phone call and chatted happily in Russian during the movie for several minutes, and the adult couple who showed up seconds before the previews began and sat next to us: She in straightened blonde hair, he all bulked-up and muscled out. Along with the usual kids and parents, of course. Pixar appeals widely.
No, we were sitting in the theater through every single credit because we, like other Pixar fans, are hip to the game: there’s almost always some kind of final bit of animation, some better than others, after the credits run. (And there is for Dory as well.)
“OK, I’m ready,” he said after a heartbeat.
“Us,” I said. “We’re the bad guys. Humans.”
It’s subtle, you see. Finding Dory isn’t about evil humans who stole her away for some horrible research experiment, precipitating her short-term memory loss. In fact, most of the humans we do see are just regular folk and some even do-gooders running an aquarium that’s half-exhibit, half-hospital for oceangoing wildlife. There’s no Cap’n Awful and his nasty trawling web catching dolphins or anything.
Pixar is smarter and more subtle than that. In a film aimed largely at kids, softly giving us a lesson on how individuals with disabilities can become valuable members of any team (as well as good friends), there’s something lurking mostly in the background aimed at the grown-ups. And I can’t believe it’s accidental.
I noticed it early on when they showed us a submerged Volkswagen. Who knows how it got into the ocean or even if VW paid for a product placement. But there it is, part of the undersea atmosphere. Not too long after, Dory and her friends swim into another piece of human detritus, a tanker that has been sunk along with all of its cargo containers. The ocean has been taking it into itself and crabs now shelter under upended cans; the half-open containers are homes for other wildlife.
But this part of the ocean is dark and full of dangers. (As are most parts of the ocean close to “civilization” – Marlin and Nemo and Dory live in a candy-colored part of the sea, but the closer we come to human territory, the murkier the water becomes.)
Things amp up a little later when Dory gets caught (briefly and not painfully) in a plastic ring holder from a six-pack of beer, and by the time we’re inside the aquarium in the “touch tank” – where little ones get to reach in and actually touch the fish inside – I was nearly in tears. That moment, where dozens of greedy little paws duck into the water in the hopes of mauling the fish is exaggerated for effect – but it is a horror show for our heroes, who have a hard time running and hiding.
Of course, these kids are like Darla from the first film. They’re not evil; they just haven’t been informed by those who should know better that this is super-stressful and horrific for the fish in the tank. And by those who should know better, I mean people who run aquariums. And parents. You know, us.
No one really knows how big the notorious garbage concentrations are in the Pacific Ocean. You’ll hear they’re “twice the size of Texas.” For one thing, it’s not one giant solid shape; there are multiple areas where currents have pulled the trash into swirling sections. But we did that, we adult humans. And we weren’t necessarily being evil when we did it – we just were careless. Out of sight, out of mind. Plastic rules. Why recycle, it’s too complicated. Whatever the reasoning, we did it. We put that plastic in the ocean for Dory to swim into; our creations are rusting hulks letting out who knows what metals and chemicals into the water. That’s us.
Garbage figures into multiple Pixar films, whether it’s the toys in Toy Story 3 nearly getting incinerated to the land-bound section of Wall-E. Amid the pretty colors and astounding computer imagery (and truly, Pixar keeps getting better and better) is a message, sometimes louder than others, that the world is getting more cluttered, more dirty, more sick. And that it isn’t Darla’s fault. We know better. And we choose not to see. (Or we elect leaders who think it’s quite fine to dial down every regulation that might prevent some of this stuff getting into the water in the first place.)
I do wonder how many kids will pick up on this. How many may see Finding Dory and ask what that thing is that nooses around her body, or what that car is doing in the water. I hope even more strongly that whoever explains it will say: We put that there. It’s not supposed to be there, but we are very slow to understand that it’s important to clean up our own messes – or even not make them in the first place.
There is a big irony here, too. Finding Dory is – like all Disney products – licensed within an inch of its life, with more plastic gee-gaws and throwaway toys than you can imagine (and I’m sure exactly 0 percent of them are biodegradable). I just wonder how long it will take before a plastic toy Dory will one day end up circling in the real-life Pacific, abandoned and ignored, forgotten.
Dory has an excuse for her memory issues. Ours are more willful: we choose to forget. And that makes us the bad guys here.
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