***This article contains spoilers for Finding Dory***
Pixar is famous for creating beautiful, funny, emotionally moving, and story-centered films that, kid-friendly though they may be, touch upon some very adult themes and ideas. The unforgettable first ten minutes of Up (2009) deals with marriage, barrenness, death, and depression; the Toy Story trilogy tells of a child who grows up and goes to college under the loving and watchful eyes of his toys, who also grow up in a way. In a delightfully inventive style, Inside Out (2015) explores the complex world of emotions inside our heads, and, as a number of critics have pointed out, this year’s feature-length film, Finding Dory (2016), focuses on disability.The film challenges viewers to consider or reconsider the way they perceive, stigmatize, label, or interact with disabled (or differently-abled) individuals.
Picking up this theme from its predecessor Finding Nemo (2003), in which the titular character is hindered by an undersized pectoral fin, Dory places in the spotlight the cheery and lovable Blue Tang fish who suffers from short-term memory loss by sending her on a journey to find her long lost parents. And while this film certainly centers around its title character, Finding Dory is also (and equally) about Dory’s best friend Marlin and his continued struggle with a faulty perception of his friends and loved ones as fundamentally damaged fish. In true Pixar style, however, Finding Dory is much more than a shallow end swim in the thematic waters of emotional, mental and physical disability. Ultimately the film interacts with current trends in the scholarly field of disability studies in interesting ways that allow for and invite an expanded, more nuanced understanding and definition of disability.
Disability studies is an academic field that came into prominence—at least as an organized, unified system—in the late 20th century. Broadly speaking, contemporary social models in the field focus on how disability is defined, labelled, treated, and constructed by societies. More succinctly, Cecilia Capuzzi Simon states in her New York Times piece, “Disability Studies: A New Normal,” that “[d]isability studies teaches that it is an unaccepting society that needs normalizing, not the minority group [disabled individuals].” This school of thought in disability studies—which is very much felt in the film—allows us to see not only Dory but also Marlin as a disabled character in the sense that he is handicapped by his fear, anxiety, and, most importantly, his restrictive perceptions about his forgetful friend.
Finding Dory consistently depicts Marlin as a fish hindered by his inability to see beyond any disability he perceives in a character. This leads to his character being paralyzed by fear and mistrust, unable to accomplish meaningful tasks. In one pivotal scene Marlin, Nemo, and Dory narrowly escape the clutches of a killer squid, and Nemo is injured. Marlin rebuffs Dory’s attempts to apologize and offer comfort. “Go over there and forget,” he says. “It’s what you do best.” Wounded by these comments, Dory swims off on her own and is captured by members of the Marine Life Institute, setting the rest of the film’s plot in motion. This scene is formative precisely because it establishes the fact that Marlin sees Dory’s disability before he sees her ability. In Marlin’s estimation, she is a broken fish in need of fixing and of constant supervision, which explains why he acts like her surrogate parent. Retrospectively, previous scenes where we see Marlin babying Dory stand in stark contrast to the flashbacks in the film where we see her birth parents, who are more concerned with giving Dory the tools and resources she needs to succeed than they are in coddling her.
Ultimately, Marlin reaps the fruits of his ability-based prejudice when he finds himself stranded in a fish tank with Nemo, without a discernible means of escape. (And, interestingly enough, Marlin found himself in this situation when he refused to trust Becky, a loyal and determined bird who is also characterized—at least by Marlin—by some sort of impairment.) “You made her feel like she couldn’t do it,” Nemo chides his father. Nemo’s indictment (which applies to Marlin’s treatment of both Dory and Becky) is searing, forcing Marlin to confront his biases and ill-treatment of these characters.
The irony of Marlin’s definition of a disabled person–someone whose mental or physical disability renders them largely unable to accomplish tasks–is that, by his own standards, Marlin suffers from a greater disability than any other character. Compared to Marlin, Dory is actually quite adept at accomplishing tasks and functioning in society. Instead of falling back on a label of disability and an attitude of learned helplessness, Dory fearlessly and eagerly utilizes the tools and friends around her in order to get things done. It is Dory who makes her way from the quarantine section of the Marine Life Institute and back again (with the help of a two whales, one seeing-impaired and one sonar-impaired); it is Dory who, when all hope is seemingly lost, forges ahead in murky water, only to find a clue from her past that leads to her parents; and it is Dory who pulls her septopus friend out of his existential crisis and into a carjacking adventure to rescue Nemo and Marlin.
A narrative in which the so-called disabled character is able to rely on friends and intuition and utilize the tools and resources at her disposal in order to function in society, while the “normal” character allows his perception of others to render him incapable of responding to adverse situations, Finding Dory is a film that gently contests the notion of what constitutes normalcy. Through its indictment of Marlin’s attitude toward Dory and Becky, Finding Dory gives a name, a face, and a voice to the charge to “look for the ability in disability.” The film’s subtext challenges viewers to consider or reconsider the way they perceive, stigmatize, label, or interact with disabled (or differently-abled) individuals. After all, Marlin is redeemed as a character when, in the maze of pipes in the Marine Life Institute, he is able to look Dory in the eye and tell her how wrong he was and how incredibly gifted, capable, and extraordinary she is. In sociological terms, he learns to see the person (or fish or bird) first, and their unique abilities second. He takes the proverbial log out of his own eye.
Finding Dory is a remarkably insightful film that speaks to disability, yes, but also a host of other social and political issues that bring out in us a tendency to define or think of others primarily by what we perceive to be their weakest, most abhorrent or offensive trait. Finding Dory is a reminder that the very image of God in our enemies, in the downcast, in the marginalized. We are simply broken in different ways, but swimming, swimming nevertheless.