2019 Film Essays

‘Finding Dory,’ Restoring Relationships and Finding a Way to View Mental Illness

Sometimes, there’s a moment in your life when you’re experiencing something that perfectly intersects with a character on screen. Behind the craft of the film, behind the artifice of a story, something so profoundly human and real in the tale cuts through to your very soul. It often happens in the first or even second viewing; but for the film that affected me, it happened around the 100th. The film is Pixar’s 2016 animated comedy Finding Dory.

Two is the number of days after my daughter was born that our newly minted family of three returned home from the hospital. On the first night that we were back, I sat on the couch, nursing my newborn (to give her mother a brief respite) while scrolling through iTunes rentals. As a movie geek, this enforced couch snuggling could serve a dual purpose: (1) to drink in this tiny human koala bear as she blissfully found comfort on my chest; (2) to catch up on some films that I hadn’t been able to see during the year. Before I was about to select O.J.: Made in America, I paused. I had no idea whether an epic documentary series about America’s most infamous trial would infiltrate my child’s mind (it wouldn’t), but only being 48 hours into this whole Dad thing made me lean into the safer choice: Finding Dory.

The year 2003 marked the release of the Disney Pixar’s enormous hit Finding Nemo, the story of a neurotic helicopter parent and clown-fish Marlin (Albert Brooks) whose son Nemo (Alexander Gould) is snatched up by a diver from the edge of their reef. Marlin must travel across the vast ocean to rescue Nemo with the help of the extremely forgetful Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), narrowly avoiding death at every turn and reuniting with his son. It’s a tale about overcoming disability, conquering fear and familial bonds so strong that you’re willing to overcome the oceans food-chain gauntlet.

Finding Dory, the sequel to the aforementioned gargantuan hit Finding Nemo, followed 13 years later. When the sequel shifted focus to Dory, you couldn’t escape that Cars 2 feeling that the elevated comedic relief compromised Pixar’s track record of striking original works. Finding Dory, though, is different.

Three hundred and sixty-five is the number of times (conservatively) that Finding Dory played in our house during the first 22 months of my daughter’s life. When I say that Finding Dory played at least once a day from the time my daughter was six months to 18 months old, I’m not kidding. As you would expect, one doesn’t exactly leave a toddler to their own devices. She showed a mild interest in other things. The Wiggles found a pretty regular rotation, and eventually, all of the Emma Wiggle (pray that you don’t know what I’m talking about) became the laser focus on that particular obsession. No matter what else my wife and I tried from the entire Pixar/classic Disney catalogue (even with attempted diversions to Finding Nemo toys and books), my daughter caught the forgery and screamed until her demands were met.

Finding Nemo, in essence, is as much about Nemo and Marlin reuniting as it is about Marlin having the courage to act after inaction led to the death of his wife and their Nemo’s spawn siblings at the beginning of the film. Finding Dory carries on the themes of unbreakable familial bonds through traumatic events, but Dory must also overcome the blinding force of her short-term memory loss. In the character’s original introduction, she is used exclusively for comedic relief. Dory is a timeless dunce to the fast-talking, neurotic Marlin. In the sequel, Pixar dares to use Dory as the mechanism to reframe the conversation about mental illness. According to the Australian Department of Health and the Black Dog Institute, one in 50 (1.8%) Australian adults will experience bipolar disorder each year. These episodes can last a week or more, and affect thought and behaviours. “Rates of depression are slightly higher in women, affecting one in six (17%) compared to one in 10 (10%) men experiencing depression in their lifetime.” 

Finding Dory briefly flashes back to where the titular character’s originated. The film tracks Dory from a young fish, cute and forgetful. Although her parents are cartoon fish, they have that tireless energy of people whose children have challenges that they cannot control. They attempt to create a pattern that circumvents Dory’s short term memory, one that leans into her likes in the unfortunate and nigh inevitable instance that she’s separated from them. When young Dory doesn’t heed advice in the form of a song, destiny happens. After many years of isolation and self-serving fish friendships, she crashes into Marlin and gets some clarity. 

Twenty-two is the number of years ago that I first experienced one of my mother’s episodes. Her best friend, a buoyant light of a woman, succumbed to a battle with bowel cancer. A family lost their sunflower of a matriarch, a powerhouse husband lost his wife and three of my dearest friends lost their mother; my mother lost a best friend and the stabilising force in her life. In what became her first and most significant episode, our lives dismantled. Friendships, living arrangements, her job; reeling in grief and fueled by mania, she began to tear everything down. The crash, after the fury of the episode, is a deep and all-encompassing depression. When I was young, I was on the pointy end of cyclical episodes. At the time, everyone in my life said that she was crazy. In the late 90s, no one talked about bipolar mood disorder, the term “Manic Depressive” or even mania.

According to the Black Dog Institute:

“Bipolar mood disorder is a form of depressive disorder that used to be called manic depressive illness. People with bipolar mood disorder experience extreme mood swings – from depression and sadness to elation and excitement. The mood swings tend to recur, can vary from mild to severe, and can be of different duration.”

A decade of change and many cycles of periodic episodes later, it’s tough to remain in my mother’s “tornado alley.” Relationships were strained. Each time you recognise the familiar steps to her heightened state, you realise that you’re stuck on an ascending roller-coaster, helpless to break free of the ride. 

Finding Dory begins in the happily ever after, on the reef, that is until another event on a school excursion triggers another journey toward discovery. There’s a chorus of rays singing a migration song, the current bends the reeds and that flutter of different memory stimuli (along with a bump on the head) draws viewers into Dory’s traumatic memory.  Marlin and Nemo are purposefully excluded. In this way, the audience dives into Dory’s perspective. When she wakes, she’s determined to re-trace her steps. Once again, viewers are whisked across the ocean and through all manner of obstacles as Dory attempts to achieve her goal.

The programming isn’t apparent on the first viewing. Dory’s relationships function in a rhythm that is, by necessity, repetitious. Dory, at times, feels like the perfect self-saboteur. And especially on those repeat viewings, Dory’s foolhardiness does sometimes grate. You find yourself, or at least I did, aligning myself with the characters perpetually feeling endangered while riding in Dory’s wake. Her companions (Marlin and Hank) forever push Dory to fit the confines of their model of the world. So, after months of nursing my baby bundle or supervising her interactions with this film (as I was bludgeoned with Dory’s adventures), it strikes me: I’ve been living a pattern, one where I know all the steps, and yet my mother feels doomed to repeat them. Despite Marlin and Hank’s attempts to normalise Dory, the eclectic sea dwellers that they meet along the way are constantly in awe of her. Watching this sequel about digital cartoon fish made me realise that this pattern isn’t just her burden, this pattern IS my mother. 

As her family, we have the strength to endure every hurdle, even when it seems to threaten our sanity. The episodes and those triggers with wiring back to past trauma are something that we’ll never be able to grasp. Like Hank the Octopus (or as Dory dubs him, the “Septo-pus”), I was too afraid to be close to my mother — to stay in her choppy ocean — for fear of being irrevocably scarred. Finding Dory triggered an epiphany. Having someone close to you with a mental illness isn’t necessarily about increasing control, or boxing them in, so-to-speak. Almost 45 percent of Australians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. * It’s about pivoting and creating the necessary space for them to be themselves in the purest sense, and to create the right support (along with offering the pertinent medical assistance, too) in order to keep them as healthy as possible. Dory is who she is, in both her sublimely poetic and sincere moments and her frustratingly forgetful. It might seem crazy to say, but Finding Dory made me realise that I had to embrace my mother’s disorder as an essential part of who she was, like the moon that creates that glorious gravitational equilibrium for Earth. Just as Dory’s parents used shells to find her way back, my children would always be my mother’s way back.

Finding Dory doesn’t claim to understand or qualify the essential triggers that affect and enhance a particular affliction. It simply deals with its characters reactions to those moments.

Dory’s short-term memory loss is an over-emphasised (forgive the pun) “cartoonish” impression of a disorder that doesn’t exist in the form portrayed. The overt simplification and humour allows for the audience to use this as a template. 

Finding Dory doesn’t attempt to tackle the hidden question that must be asked constantly for anyone with a diagnosed mental illness: “why must I endure a mental illness while others don’t have to?” Instead, it has a zen outlook to simply play with the knowing acceptance that this kind of thing can occur. 

In the final moments of Finding Dory, Dory and Marlin stare out into the ocean drop-off as they silently appreciate the vast and sublime emptiness ahead. One thing continues to come to mind: “Children of parents with the disorder have a greater risk of developing it.” Hopefully, when my daughter sees the signs and patterns appearing in my undertow, she can remind me, like we have warned her grandmother, to say “heck no.

Blake Howard (@blakeisbatman) is a film critic and the host of the sprawling long form critical analysis, the One Heat Minute podcast. He is also the founding editor of the film blog Graffiti With Punctuation, where his writing has appeared since 2012.