What fish have to say about disability
Finding Dory Is Honest, Hopeful
Finding Dory landed in theaters in June, and once again the story of tropical fish searching for family members brought down the house. The pristine animation, rollicking plot, and memorable characters swept in more than $185 million in box office tickets on opening weekend and earned the movie fifth place on Rotten Tomatoes’ “Top 100 Movies of 2016” list.
Despite its slapstick humor and lovable animated creatures, Finding Dory thoughtfully weighs in on the discussion of disability. The movie includes a wide cast of characters battling a variety of impairments, but those disabilities—especially memory loss—are framed as genuine hardships with no easy resolution.
In her quest to find her barely-remembered parents, the blue tang fish Dory endures rounds of self-doubt, crippling fear, and bewilderment as she loses her friends and her way, and swims about in dim places with fearful half-memories lurking in the shadows.
Despair is a distinct undertone throughout the movie. Hank, the gruff octopus-minus-one-tentacle who acts as Dory’s guide through the adventure, is disillusioned over his inability to function normally. He mentions how numbingly good it would be to swim through the rest of his life in a glass box, remembering nothing.
But despair is redemptive: Dory’s hopeful striving to overcome her disability encourages Hank to abandon his disillusionment and risk his life to save a truckload of fish headed to Cleveland Zoo (and, um, drive the truck over a cliff to the tune of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” but you sorta need to see the movie to get it).
After discovering her parents are likely dead, Dory gets lost in a gloomy kelp bed and experiences a shattering relapse in memory. In a beautifully orchestrated climax of plot resolution and character development, viewers watch Dory build herself up again, piece by tearful piece. She starts with what she knows: that kelp is safe, that sand is squishy, that her mom liked purple shells. A path of shells leads away across the dark seabed, and some vague instinct tells Dory the shells are familiar and good. At the end of the shell path, two tang fish who have waited in the kelp bed for years emerge from the gloom: “Dory? Honey, is that you?”
Why is there so much hope for the future of disability in the symbol of a forgetful fish discovering that she can find her way home? In the last scene, seconds before the credits roll, viewers are let in on the bittersweet secret: Dory has done it before. A flashback reveals a very young Dory wandering from shell to shell until she reaches her cozy house where her parents are waiting, hoping this time their tiny daughter might remember the way home.
So much of living with a disability is fighting the same battles over and over again, and the film acknowledges that handling severe impairment is a cyclical process. But however often Dory forgets she can overcome her handicap doesn’t matter; what does matter is that she has the persistence and hope to work around it time after time.
In Finding Dory, disability is not conquered once and for all in a blaze of prosthetics, a transformative relationship, and thrilling music. Instead, disability is treated as what it may well be: a daily cycle of small triumphs, self-doubt, pain, and the slow understanding of a raw reality that ultimately leads to some hope, some courage, and in Dory’s case, the wavering confidence to do it again tomorrow.