There are terrific Pixar sequels (“Toy Story 2” and “3”) and OK Pixar sequels (“Cars 2,” “Monsters University”). “Finding Dory” is one of the terrific ones, if not quite up to the “Toy Story” standard. A worthy successor to “Finding Nemo” (2003), it’s often darker than its predecessor and spends a lot more time on land — in and around a California marine life institute. But at its frequent best “Finding Dory” soars — or swims, as the case might be.
Andrew Stanton, who co-directed and co-wrote “Nemo,” returns for “Dory,” this time sharing director credit with Angus MacLane and writing credit with Victoria Strouse and Bob Peterson (who also co-wrote “Nemo”). The continuity viewers will notice is vocal. Ellen DeGeneres is back as Dory, a blue tang with serious short-term memory issues. “That’s the one thing I can remember,” she says — that she’s always forgetting. Albert Brooks is back, too, as Marlin, a clown fish who’s Nemo’s dad. As good as DeGeneres is at adorable good cheer, Brooks may be even better at barely checked vexation.
This time Dory and Nemo reverse roles. Instead of Dory helping Marlin search for his missing son, it’s Marlin and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) helping Dory search for her parents (Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy). The movie begins with a flashback, where we see the young Dory getting separated from mom and dad. Themes of loss and parent-child separation color the movie, enough so that children under 8 may find the film disturbing. That’s also true of several scenes of character endangerment. Pixar’s animation is so scary-good that when you see something that is actually meant to be scary it can be really, really scary.
With the aid of some surfer-dude sea turtles, Dory, Marlin, and Nemo make it across the Pacific to Morro Bay, Calif., where she thinks her parents still might be. That’s also where the marine life institute is. We get a fish-eye view of life inside, and let’s just say any aquarium administrators in the audience may squirm a bit. At times, the legacy movie that comes to mind isn’t “Finding Nemo” but “The Great Escape.” Speaking of other movies, a wild chase has a climax that guarantees “Finding Dory” will be Thelma and Louise’s favorite Pixar feature.
Ed O’Neill, as Hank, a helpful octopus desperate to get to Cleveland (that’s right, Cleveland), heads an outstanding voice cast. Keaton and Levy are paragons of piscine parenthood. In a nice meta touch, Sigourney Weaver plays the voice of . . . Sigourney Weaver. Idris Elba and Dominic West have a grand old time sunning themselves and offering commentary as a pair of sea lions. “The Wire” was never like this, that’s for sure.
Much of the plot is outrageously, if also cheerfully, implausible — except that, in a context of talking fish, what qualifies as implausible? The important thing is how everything rings true emotionally. The real genius of Pixar isn’t the studio’s animation wizardry — and wizardry it is. Whether on land, underwater, or in the sky, what we see is so stunning as to seem utterly matter of fact (the highest form of mastery). Just to take the most obvious example, the gradations of light at various depths beneath the waves are rendered with jaw-dropping subtlety.
No, what makes Pixar the miracle it is is the human element — and that’s no less true when the humans are fish. The best Pixar films maintain a level of emotional richness and truth to life as actually lived and felt that’s almost unknown in Hollywood movies, animated or otherwise. The title of “Finding Dory” reminds us of that. Her journey of discovery begins, and ends, in the most important place of all, inside. What Dory ultimately finds is herself.
“Piper,” the Pixar short preceding the feature, is wordless and elegant. Learning to feed himself, a sandpiper hatchling also learns just what it means to get wet. Instead of catching a wave, several waves catch him. Splish, splash, he’s taken aback — until he isn’t.
Directed by Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane. Written by Stanton, Victoria Strouse, and Bob Peterson. Starring the voices of Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Hayden Rolence, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 97 minutes. PG (themes of loss and parent-child separation, as well several scenes of character endangerment, may disturb children under 8).