Michael Cavna: Finding Dory - Does a good Pixar film have to make us cry?

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One Pixar motto over the years has been "for every laugh, a tear." But ahead of Finding Dory's release, I wonder: As the marine-life high jinks and slapstick unfold, is it unfair to expect audience waterworks, too?

After a recent screening of Dory, laughter seemed to be far more common than any residual weepiness. In his highly positive review of the film, the Wrap's Alonso Duralde wrote that Finding Dory "never quite hits that sweet spot of sadness." Emotional buttons are pushed, he judged, but we don't "ache."

Hank, voiced by Ed O'Neill, right, and Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, in a scene from Finding Dory. Photo / AP
Hank, voiced by Ed O'Neill, right, and Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, in a scene from Finding Dory. Photo / AP

Your mileage and tear ducts may vary during Dory's sea quest, of course, but such reactions do prompt the question: Must a Pixar film really make us ache to be considered great? Are we so accustomed to getting misty-eyed in Pixar movies that we feel a bit let down if we don't experience that profound twinge of painful loss?

And does that render Pixar a victim of its own remarkable success at plumbing our emotional depths?

Part of the context here is that many filmgoers have such different expectations and biases regarding animated movies. We're not quite so amazed if a live-action film - be it Old Yeller or Field of Dreams or An Affair to Remember - causes us to tear up. Yet many are still astonished when a cartoon can make us cry. All these years after the death of Bambi's mother (um, spoiler), the ability of a drawing to draw out our sadness is a feat that can surprise us.

It's part of why Pixar has stood out for so long amid the animated pack in American film. We've come to expect good, funny and artful movies from Disney Animation and Laika and Blue Sky, and we welcome the giddy silliness from Universal and DreamWorks Animation, among other big shingles.

A scene from the Disney Pixar movie, Inside Out.
A scene from the Disney Pixar movie, Inside Out.

Yet after the profoundly emotional moments of Jessie's Song (When She Loved Me in Toy Story 2?), Ellie's Theme (the Married Life sequence in Up) and the swan song of Bing-Bong (Inside Out), to cite just several, many of us expect to need the Kleenex as a Pixar movie's arc gains gravitas. Time and again, these Emeryville animators have proved to be masters of not only story beats, but also heart beats. They know how to draw out an entire emotional range of reactions - and they know that they know: Nemo co-writer (and voice of Mr. Ray) Bob Peterson told me that Up's Ellie montage is "the four greatest minutes in [film] animation."

Director Andrew Stanton proved his own gifts in this regard with the 2003 original, Finding Nemo - the first Pixar film to truly delve into the vulnerability and painful challenges of parenting. Loss, and then potential loss, led us to swim with the blues amid all the comic relief.

But if you see Finding Dory and don't find yourself "weeping with the fishes," that doesn't necessarily mean it should count as a mark against this frolicking film.

For my taste, I will say this: Billy Wilder is one of my favourite directors because he could do it all - any genre - with not only great craft, but great truth. His characters were so textured, many are carved into the cinematic pantheon.

Pixar has that same genius range - the call of the Wilder. So whether I'm using a hanky or a party favour, I loudly salute the sheer scope of these storytellers.

When it comes to finding story, they keep making great new memories.

- Washington Post

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