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'Finding Dory' and disabilities


June 28, 2016

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    As someone who actually quite liked Jojo Moyes' Me Before You, I got exasperated at the outpouring of hate directed at the film of the same name that came out a few weeks ago. I went digging through reviews and disability-positive forums to try to understand a different perspective. After researching, I still felt that most of the hate resulted from bad readings of the source material, but the research primed me for a completely mind-blowing experience when I walked into Pixar's latest, the long-awaited sequel Finding Dory.
    Because if you're looking for a disability-positive movie, Finding Dory blows it out of the freaking water.
    I don't want to waste space with synopsis, but to set the scene: Lovable blue tang Dory, who lives with short-term memory loss, suddenly gets a blast of recollection that leads her on a quest to reunite with her long-lost family. The journey takes her and former favorites Marlin and Nemo all the way to an aquarium in California that serves as a hospital for marine life, rescuing injured animals and rehabilitating them for release. Dory is separated from Nemo and Marlin to go on her own adventure in the aquarium, working with a cast of colorful new characters to find the family she lost so long ago.
    I was so wrapped up in the family reunion plot that it wasn't until halfway through the movie that I really realized what was going on. As soon as the story moves to the aquarium, every major character the audience encounters has some kind of condition that would be typically classified as a disability. The whale shark has myopia, making it difficult for her to see where she goes when she swims; her neighbor, a beluga whale, has trouble using his echolocation. To get into the aquarium, Marlin and Nemo must rely on the help of a sea lion and a loon, each with some kind of developmental disorder, while Dory's partner in crime in the aquarium is an octopus-turned-septapus named Hank. And, of course, you have Dory herself, always introducing herself with (and, heartbreakingly, apologizing for) her short-term memory loss, and learning to live more effectively with it on her own.
    I get very annoyed with stories that present unchangeable aspects about people as obstacles to be overcome. A film about race that presents skin color as a challenge to be transcended is not a whole lot better than an outright racist movie, and the same goes for movies about disabilities. Watching Finding Dory, I never once felt that the characters were being driven to "overcome" their disabilities. In fact, their disabilities were by far the least important, least defining traits about the characters, to the point where — until I started looking for it — I hardly noticed that many of them had disabilities at all. 
    In addition to giving these normatively challenged characters time to shine, the movie puts much of the burden for "overcoming" disability on the able-bodied characters (namely Marlin; there are actually very few of them in the movie). Just as Marlin had to learn to give Nemo space and let him grow up in Finding Nemo, Marlin has to get his neurotic daddy tendencies in check and realize that Dory — despite the hazards her short-term memory loss can pose — is perfectly capable of taking care of herself. 
    It isn't a perfect movie; in fact, several writers have pinged on the aforementioned sea lion and loon, which become the butt of several jokes that other characters are spared. But it's a step in the right direction and does a good job of introducing talking points between parents and children about living with community members who live with mental and physical challenges — and about living with their own.

    Brittani Howell is the editor of Connect Statesboro. If you'd like to reach out, shoot a message to editor@connectstatesboro.com!

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