Dory’s peppy catchphrase “Just keep swimming” is a mantra many of us repeat when we need to keep going to finish work, or to get through rage-inducing traffic, or to move past any number of situations. But for Dory, it’s how she manages life. When you can’t remember your recent actions or words, the only option is to look forward. She can’t linger in the past because she doesn’t remember she has a past. Dory’s short-term memory loss is a tragic aspect of her character, and though her troubles were part of the story in Pixar’s Finding Nemo, they’re at the very center of the upcoming sequel Finding Dory.
The blue tang takes the spotlight in the second film. The driving thrust of the plot is that Dory remembers she has a family and is compelled to find them. Friends new and old help Dory on her quest, but ultimately, the journey is hers; it turns out to be not only about locating her parents, but about accepting herself.
Though Dory never apologizes for anyone else’s challenges, she’s constantly saying “I’m sorry” for her memory loss. On the notion of Dory feeling the need to apologize for herself, producer Lindsey Collins told Nerdist, “It’s definitely a thing in the movie, and it’s addressed as the movie progresses as something that she needs to stop doing. Andrew felt it was important to set up she feels this way about herself, but she’s not apologetic about anybody else.”
Collins said it’s not about painting Dory as a victim. “She’s not a victim. That’s never how anybody would ever describe Dory. But, she also is insecure at some level about her own inability to remember things. We always were walking the line between. ‘That sounds like she’s being a victim, and that’s not the Dory I remember and love, so we can’t do that.’ It was this constant fine-tuning lines,” she explained.
It’s not about curing Dory either. Collins said, “One of the things that we landed on was, for a character that we’re not trying to change—because everybody really likes her; you’re not going from an unlikable character to a likable character—you’re not trying to fix her disability, you’re just trying to go, ‘Okay, this is where she is now, and the thing that she really needs to find is acceptance for herself and her belief in herself that she can do it on her own.’ She needs to find it herself and that she can do it on her own, in her own way, and to not just all of a sudden stop and be like, ‘I’m sorry, I suffer from short…'”
Pixar is known for its ability to evoke the feels, shall we say, and it’s no different with Finding Dory. They blend lighthearted moments with weightier, sometimes quite sad issues. Collins said, “When we hit our sweet spot, that’s how we hit it, right? When we’ve hit it well at Pixar, it’s been that—where you can find that combination of a movie that makes you laugh but that makes you feel something.”
Collins’ husband was particularly affected by a scene in the film and was trying to pinpoint why it hit him so hard. She said he realized he allowed himself to feel it more because he ultimately knew Dory would be okay. We saw how resilient she is in Finding Nemo, and obviously, since she’s survived for so long on her own, she can get by. “He said as an audience member, sometimes you don’t allow yourself to go into the, ‘That’s so sad,’ feeling because you actually don’t know if the person’s going to be okay, and so you’re kind of bracing yourself. He said, ‘For whatever reason, I think because I knew she was okay, I allowed myself to be in the moment with her. It impacted me more,'” Collins said.
The film goes into moments from Dory’s past that are heart-wrenching, but that contribute to who Dory is. Collins explained, “The goal is to kind of give Dory the full subtlety of a life story that I think she deserves, even if she can’t remember it herself.” Getting that subtlety right involved talking to experts. They worked with adoption experts and asked questions: Why do kids want to know about their own pasts? Can specific events trigger this curiosity?
It was also important for them to communicate Dory’s been happy with Marlin and Nemo, and that her quest isn’t about abandoning them. Collins said, “We love Marlin and Nemo, and we’re happy she’s with them. We were struggling with making sure that we didn’t undermine her relationship with Marlin and Nemo, who I think everybody’s rooting for, by having her want to find where her actual family is. That was tricky. We talked to adoption experts and said, ‘How does that work, and when that happens, how successful is it, and what are the feelings that people are having?’ Like, should Marlin and Nemo be offended?”
They also talked to professionals about memory. Collins said, “We needed to understand it more because we were desperately looking for rules. What we wanted it to be, which is that she has emotional memory but not practical or detail memory, is actually a real thing. A lot of times, Alzheimer’s or people with amnesia remember…they remember that they love that person. They cannot remember the name, they can’t remember how old they are or what the relationship is to them, but they remember they love them. That’s what we tried to always hold onto, is that she’s got these emotional memories. She might forget Nemo’s name, but she remembers that she loves Nemo.”