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Finding Dory is a movie about disability

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2017

I watched Finding Dory with my daughter this weekend. It was our second time through and while I’d enjoyed it when we saw it in the theater, this time the theme really hit home. At the most basic level, Finding Dory is about animals with disabilities, how their supposed weaknesses can be strengths, and the challenges faced and strategies employed by parents of children with disabilities. The characters from the movie use their varying abilities in many different to help their friends.

Hank is an octopus who is missing a tentacle and struggles with anxiety about the open ocean. He’s able to fight through that anxiety to form a fast bond with Dory and return to the ocean.

Becky is a loon who appears unbalanced but is a very loyal friend once you’ve made a personal connection with her. Nemo believes in Becky and she comes through in a crucial moment in the movie. (Note that “loon” is a bird but is also slang for someone who is mentally ill.)

One of Nemo’s fins is smaller than the other. It doesn’t slow him down. In this film as well as in Finding Nemo, Nemo journeys across the ocean and helps his friends out of numerous scrapes.

Marlin, Nemo’s father, struggles with anxiety related to parenthood1 after he lost his mate and all but one of his children in a terrible accident. In Finding Nemo, that anxiety fuels him as he searches an entire ocean for his missing son, but at a crucial moment he also realizes that it’s damaging his relationship with his son and holding him back. In this movie, he comes to accept Dory and her full abilities and, with the help of his son, is able to put himself in her shoes — “What would Dory do?” — to make a timely escape.

Destiny is a nearsighted whale shark who nevertheless has a keen ability to help people find their way using her superior verbal communication skills. With the help and encouragement of friends, she is able to escape her tank and help rescue her friend Dory.

Bailey is a beluga whale who temporarily loses his echolocation and struggles with a lack of confidence. With their friends in need, Destiny encourages Bailey to rediscover his ability to help. (Basically, Bailey and Destiny help each other “see” in different ways.)

Jenny and Charlie are Dory’s parents. When Dory was young, they taught her to face her disability head-on and spent countless hours providing her with the encouragement and skills that she needed to become self-sufficient. And after Dory disappeared, they escaped to the ocean, built an elaborate display designed to help Dory find her way back to them, and waited years for her to return.

And Dory, the hero of the story, has short-term memory loss. Her inability to remember things for more than a minute or two has equipped her with a fierce sense of loyalty for her friends & family, a canny impulse for action when they are in need, and an infectious enthusiasm. Again and again, she acts when something needs to be done without the burden of past or future holding her back. In the end, with the help of Nemo and Marlin, she comes to see that her disability is a great strength and uses it to save her friends and find her parents.

Yeah, Pixar makes movies for children that are fun and full of gags & engaging characters. But time and again, from The Incredibles to Wall-E to Ratatouille to Inside Out, Pixar challenges audiences of all ages with larger themes relevant to society at large. If you missed it the first time around or just left your kids to watch it alone, I encourage you to give Finding Dory a chance. Bona fide blockbuster movies 1 that deal intelligently and with care about marginalized issues like disability are hard to come by.

  1. I relate so much to Marlin in this respect that it makes me uncomfortable. Finding Nemo was my favorite Pixar film for a long while and watching it now, after becoming a parent in the meantime, it resonates in an entirely different way.

  2. Finding Dory grossed more than $1 billion worldwide in 2016, second only to Captain America: Civil War for highest worldwide gross. The movie is currently 8th on the all-time domestic grosses list, the highest entry for an animated film.

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