How 'Finding Dory' Is About Dory Coming To Embrace Her Disability

When a Finding Nemo sequel was announced, many people, including myself, were skeptical of the motivations behind the announcement. Yesterday you learned how director Andrew Stanton came to find that a Finding Nemo sequel was necessary. And now we reveal why he felt Dory's story was not over.

On a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I got to preview 30 minutes of Finding Dory. And I must admit, the 13-minute opening of the film (which I will not spoil) floored me. It was unexpected, dark, emotional and so very compelling. And what interests me is the idea that Finding Dory is actually a movie about disabled character on a journey to embrace what she may feel is her big flaw.

Note: the following report is compiled from roundtable interviews, presentations with Pixar creative leads and a one-on-one interview with director Andrew Stanton and producer Lindsey Collins.

FINDING DORY – Lighting Exploration Concept Art by Visual Consultant Sharon Calahan. ©2016 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

How Dory's Disability Drives Her Character

When I talked to Finding Dory co-director Angus MacLane, he described the story as partially being about Dory coming to own her disability. While Stanton never thought of Dory's short-term memory loss as a disability, he agrees that it is the core foundation of her character that is the reason for this story.

I never think of it as a disability, so even though that's the perfect word for it. I just saw it as... It's just her uniqueness, right? And she sees it as a flaw, as something she has to compensate for. It's something that she doesn't trust, that she thinks is gonna cause problems for herself. It's probably why she became super fish at being friendly and helpful and humorous and insightful. It's all these things that will make somebody not ditch her because she doesn't trust that her short term memory loss will betray her. Either she'll drop, she'll lose somebody or they'll be sick of her. And I knew that was how she was made up from the day I came up with her. And that's why I always saw her as tragic. But her skill set, her armor is so arresting. And so caretaking and so like everybody loves her. And of course she's gonna be great at that. So that you won't ditch her. And she won't be alone again. And I didn't want her to feel like that on the inside. I wanted her to, like, recognize and love what everybody else loves about her. Everybody has still thinks about her, even after the movie 10 years. But I knew deep down she didn't believe that deep, deep, deep, deep, deep, deep down. And I feel like most people have something about themselves that they see as a big flaw and that they've never been able to change about themselves. And I think the key is not often that you can conquer it, that you can get rid of it, but it was more as a how do you conquer it? How do you own it? How do you turn that into an asset? And I think that's a very universal thing. And it works for disabilities. It works for handicaps, but it also works for just how you see yourself as imperfect. And that I liked. And that naturally came from just trying to deal with Dory. For trying to make her a main character. I mean, she wasn't built to be a main character. She was built to just support somebody else. And a main character's a very different role. And so they worked hand in hand for each other.

 You May Have Missed Dory's Touch of Sadness in Finding Nemo

The character has a touch of sadness to her that perhaps we didn't see in the original Finding Nemo, but will become more apparent in this sequel. But to Stanton, it was never hidden or added for this film. Its not like Marty McFly all of a sudden being irked by the word "chicken."

To me it was hidden. It was never added. And not to like pounce on the word, but to me it was under the hood the whole time. And I realized that the audience must have sensed it or else they wouldn't have been accepting of this character two-thirds of the way into Nemo suddenly crying and saying don't leave me when we did nothing to set that up. Yet everybody accepts it. It's because unconsciously you go, there's no way somebody with short term memory loss could be wandering the ocean and be happy. And I don't care if nobody ever had that thought, you felt it. Just like you sensed it when you meet a stranger and you don't know anything about them. But yet you sense something. And so I knew that like, oh, that's there and I knew everybody else senses it's there, but what I made the mistake of is I assumed that everybody really consciously thought of that. And so it took me about a year or two in and things weren't working and getting angry and suddenly realizing, oh my gosh.

On the next page we'll learn how a key element to the Finding Dory story wasn't discovered until a year and a half into development, and how thats typical of the Pixar development process.

Finding Dory

Finding Dory's Backstory

They were a year and a half into development on Finding Dory before Stanton gave the story team the background which ultimately became the foundation of the movie. Collins remembers being in the story room when Stanton revealed Dory's backstory, which helped them find the film's footing.

You were like, it's because she's been wandering for years by herself before she meets Marlin. And the whole story team and I were like, what? And so he says, for years she was by herself. Marlin was the first time anybody's ever and we were like... really? And he was like, did I not say that out loud? We were like, no, you've never said that before. And he's like, I probably should take some time to write out what the backstory is. And you had it in your mind your whole time, you just hadn't ever voiced it 'cause it was never required really as we were going on.

And thats when Stanton realized that the backstory needs to be explored in the movie, setting a more dramatic tone that calls back to the beginning of the original film.

So I realized we gotta put that in the beginning of the movie so that everybody was up to speed. But it also had a nice by-product, which was, it reminded you that the first movie is also dark. And the first movie's very dramatic and emotional. It doesn't indulge in comedy. And it set the tone correctly for everybody 'cause nobody remembers that when they leave the film. When you enter the first film, that's what it is.  And so it kind of set it on the rails correctly too.

andrew stanton, finding dory

The Pixar Development Process: "You Pretty Much Spend The First Three Years With Very Little Working"

The typical Pixar movie usually takes five years from development to release, and Stanton admits that like Finding Dory, most of the stories take a few years of development to find their real footing.

I'll be honest with you, you pretty much spend the first three years with very little working. So what wasn't working just basically is, you put on the play and it didn't feel like you, it didn't feel like she had progressed. It didn't feel like, it felt like you were saying stuff, but not feeling growth. And that's not that uncommon with any picture, at least for me. And so that was, it's like you could put it together and tell it as a story, but it didn't do anything for you. You know what I mean? Like it all made logical sense, 'cause you kind of have to start somewhere. I always say there's plot and there's character. And the truth is you kind of need both to figure a movie out. To figure just character out. Like you kind of have to just, like, guess and plot together a movie with a character in it. And just to, like, tell a story from A to Z. And then it won't work. And then you go, oh, okay, now that makes me think about why about the character. Then you change the character and then you readjust the plot. And then you tell it again. And it doesn't work. And then and you just keep using plot as a means to find the character. And what tends to happen and this happened about two and a half years in is you finally get the character. And then you're willing to change 100 percent of the plot again, but with confidence because you finally found the character. So it's like plot's used for a whole different reason for like the first two years. It's just a means to find the character. And then once you find it, then you just have, it's not even like you did anything wrong, but like that's just what you gotta do. And now that you know who this person is, let's retell the story.

On the next page we'll tell you about the problems with making a movie about character that was designed to be a supporting character and more.


Finding Dory Is Not a Traditional Sequel

Finding Dory isn't a traditional sequel, and it's probably more of a spin-off, although Stanton "didn't think of it that way."

I just thought of, what's the last thing unresolved emotionally that's open ended from the first movie? So to me it's like a ripple that goes out from the center. And I just followed that lead. And I just let it be true to that. And I let however that gets reflected for what the end product of that be what it is. And that's the only way I knew it could be honest and authentic. So however it's being kind of perceived, it wasn't planned that way. It was found that way. If that makes sense.

Marlin and Nemo are still very much in the film, but Dory is on her own for this adventure and Stanton says thats the whole point of the film: "She's no longer a passenger, she's the driver. And she has to learn how to do that."


The Problem With Developing a Movie About a Supporting Character

And one of the problems of putting Dory into the central role of a movie is that she was built to be a supporting character . Stanton admits that she's "so good at supporting that she basically complements" any character in the scene with her.

It came out of us instinctually. Like oh, and then she can say this. And it'll make Hank really funny. And then she can do this and it'll make Destiny and Bailey really funny. She's so wired up to tee up everybody else and put the spotlight on them. And we kept falling into that trap. It was really hard.

So there was a constant struggle to keep Dory as the leader of this adventure. Sometimes it would just involve switching the lines around so that Dory was now back in charge of the momentum or other times it meant completely rewriting a sequence.