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In Which I am Jealous of a Pair of Fish

Unashamed confession: I have wept, openly, at one hundred percent of the Pixar films I’ve ever attended. And yes, I cried this weekend at Finding Dory. But unlike the Toy Story tears that honored the inevitability of change or the Inside Out tears at seeing the imperfect tween I used to be so perfectly mirrored, the Dory tears had a bitter immediacy, coupled with an unbecoming acknowledgment.

I am jealous of a pair of fish.

Because Jenny and Charlie, Dory’s parents? Should be freaking angelfish. When it comes to raising their Special Needs child they are unassailably perfect: they radiate patience, calm, and love. They brim with adaptive learning strategies, the clever rhymes and sing along earworms that will keep thelp their daughter thrive.

I am not Jenny or Charlie; as a Special Needs parent, I fear I skew more toward the Marlin mold. In Finding Dory, Marlin (and yes, I know he isn’t Dory’s parent, though as the movie unfolds there are parental dynamics at play) is as nervous and naysaying as he was in the original Nemo. He is frequently short with Dory. He gets exasperated. He gets dismissive. He is even--in one of the loudest emotional notes of the film--outright cruel in a moment where he’s emotionally stretched thin. Yes, he feels guilty after; Pixar is too deft to let him off the hook. Marlin grows and strives to be better. He comes to appreciate Dory’s essential Dory-ness and is at his most heroic when he approximates his companion’s unexamined brashness. It’s a kids’ movie; of course there’s a lesson to be learned.

And I’m all for that lesson; I am. Any takeaway that’s grounded in an expansion of empathy is a good and necessary one.

Except the lesson felt a little pat, a little hollow, and a fair bit short of more than cursory empathy.

Consider the way young Dory’s disability is packaged as utterly adorable, a wide eyed baby fish lisping about her “remembery loss.” Or the fact that (spoiler alert!) her family lives within the safe confines of an aquarium. The way that Dory’s new whale and shark sidekicks are able to conveniently overcome their own disabilities through sheer force of will and save the day. Life inside the aquarium seems pretty sweet: there aren’t even any judgmental, trolling schools of fish hovering, asking why, given her impairment, Jenny and Charlie chose to raise Dory so close to the pipe that allowed her to wander off in the first place.

Life’s different outside the aquarium. The Marlins of the world have it harder. We get by, as Marlin does, on fragmentary sleep. We’re tasked with the awfulness, as Marlin is, of explaining to our children when their disabilities exclude them from ”ordinary” childhood adventures. We juggle responsibilities--other children, work, self-care--as best we can. We go toe to toe with tightfisted school bureaucracies intent on stalling services and support. We endure the stares of strangers and accept compliments on our children knowing they come with an asterisk, that unstated given your circumstances. We seem like we know more acronyms than we do actual words. We apologise to our bosses when we’re called away at the last minute, again, because the school phoned or the specialist with the six month waitlist had a miraculous cancellation. We take our kids to a Pixar movie lauded for its empathy and note that the cognitively impaired characters (a daft sea lion and a literal loon) are the targets of its most mean spirited humor.

Pixar films consistently take aim at the ferocious, protective, terrifying, beautiful heart of what it means to be a parent. They consistently hit that mark. And they come so close in Finding Dory. At their moment of reunion, we spy Jenny and Charlie, having sacrificed their security on the slight chance of their daughter’s return, at work on the repetitive minutiae they hope will be for her benefit. It’s a moment that stretches toward the universal, and I wish the film had kept on stretching, that I’d left the theater feeling seen and understood, buoyed by the warmth so many reviews had promised, with the usual Pixar nostalgia instead of longing for an aquarium equivalent that doesn’t actually exist.

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