Disney and Pixar didn’t go to director Andrew Stanton and ask for another movie in the Finding Nemo universe. During an interview with a small group of journalists including Nerdist, Stanton pointed out, “Nobody plans to make a sequel 10 years later.”Finding Dory came about when Stanton realized that the forgetful blue tang’s story was left hanging. “I thought, ‘What’s the last thing unresolved emotionally that’s open-ended from the first movie?'” he said. “To me, it’s like a ripple that goes out from the center. I just followed that lead. That’s the only way I knew that could be honest and authentic.”
Dory takes the lead in the sequel when she suddenly recalls she has a family. Even though she’s quite happy with the life she’s built with Marlin and Nemo, she’s compelled to look for her parents. Her journey leads her to the Marine Life Institute in California. As you can imagine, due to her short-term memory loss, nothing about this quest is easy.
Getting back to her voice and turning her into a main character rather than a supporting one wasn’t easy either. Finding Dory producer Lindsey Collins said it was a process to capture the right notes for Dory’s voice—the team always recognized when her lines or actions were off. “We all knew how we felt about her and, man, did we write it wrong a lot,” she said. “But the good news was, everybody unanimously would be like, ‘Nope. That doesn’t feel like her. That’s not what she would say. That’s not how she’d react. She feels like a victim, that’s never how she felt on the first film.'”
Some of these missteps became clearer once Ellen DeGeneres came back to record lines for Dory. DeGeneres, returning for the sequel, was surely one of the ingredients that helped inspire Dory in the first place. Stanton said, in his “typical dumb male fashion,” he had initially made the character male. After hearing DeGeneres on The Ellen Show, he had the idea of flipping the gender.
Stanton said, “Basically, there’s an underlying sophistication and intelligence, which are not two things you immediately think of with Dory.” He continued, “[There’s a] street smart savvy that isn’t obvious, but it’s felt. You get it just from Ellen speaking. We wrote without it for a short while and then once we started recording, we were like, ‘Oh, that’s right, there’s no way you wander the ocean for 20 years and not know how to survive.'”
On the same point, Stanton doesn’t think “disability” is quite the right description for Dory’s condition. He said, “I never think of it as a disability, even though that’s the perfect word for it. I saw it as… it’s her uniqueness. 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 going to cause problems for herself. It’s probably why she became super human, or super fish, at being friendly and helpful and humorous and insightful—it’s all these things that will make somebody not ditch her. [She’s worried] she’ll lose somebody or they’ll be sick of her. 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.”
Stanton continued, “But her skill set, her armor is so arresting and so care-taking. Everybody loves her. Of course she’s going to be great at that so you won’t ditch her. I didn’t want her to feel like that on the inside. I wanted her to recognize and love what everybody else loves about her. I knew deep down she didn’t believe that. I feel like most people have something about themselves that they see as a big flaw that they’ve never been able to change about themselves, and I think the key is not often that you can get rid of it, but how do you conquer it? How do you own it? How do you turn that into an asset? I think that’s a very universal thing.”
Tragedy is part of Dory’s story. Sure, she provided plenty of humorous notes in Finding Nemo, but the trying parts of her condition were just under the surface. Stanton explained he didn’t have to add it for Finding Dory. “It was hidden. It was never added. It was under the hood the whole time. I realized 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.’ I don’t care if [you] never had that thought—you felt it.”
He and Collins had a laugh over how Stanton sort of forgot to describe all that to the story team. “What I made the mistake of [doing] was, I assumed that everybody really consciously thought of that,” Stanton said. After a year or two into working on the movie, after hitting a few snags and growing increasingly angry, it occurred to him he hadn’t actually articulated the past he came up with for Dory.
Collins related the tale: “[Stanton was] like, ‘[She’s sad] because been wandering years and years by herself before she meets Marlin.’ And the whole story team and I were like ‘What?!'” Stanton didn’t realize he’d never said it out loud before. Collins recalled Stanton saying, “‘I probably should take some time to write out what I think her backstory is.'” Speaking to Stanton, she continued, “You had it in your mind the whole time, but you hadn’t ever voiced it.”
Though the sequel won’t be subtle about the hardships of Dory’s short-term memory loss, it will celebrate her charming qualities, too. Collins said, “The other thing that’s interesting to me about this film is obviously there are a lot of other characters around her on that have, in theory, disabilities. Hank’s a septopus, Destiny’s severely near-sighted and can’t see well, Bailey’s echolocation doesn’t work, and Nemo’s got this little fin. Yet you never hear Dory ask about any of it. She acknowledges it and usually gives a compliment. She spends a lot of time apologizing for herself and her short-term memory loss but never apologizes or asks anybody to apologize for their seemingly equal disabilities. I think the [question] was, how do we get her to treat herself the same way? And the only way to do that is to prove to herself that she can do it in her own way.”