The Short-Term Memory of God: The Gospel According to Finding Dory

Finding Dory — Pixar’s latest box office smash — picks up where Finding Nemo left […]

CJ Green / 6.20.16

Finding Dory — Pixar’s latest box office smash — picks up where Finding Nemo left off, a year after that rebellious clownfish was found and rescued from the dentist’s tank in Sydney, Australia. Nemo’s friend, Dory, a natural blue who suffers from short-term memory loss, isn’t adjusting well to daily life in the Great Barrier Reef — repeatedly, she stings herself swimming into the sea anemone. She regularly disrupts Nemo’s class. Although she has found a place to call home, her memory loss affects her and her friends every moment. It consumes her life so completely that, in some ways, it becomes her.

The film really gets going when a swarm of stingrays jogs a distant memory of her parents. She realizes how much she longs to be with them. The problem is that she cannot remember who they are or how she lost them. Marlin and Nemo — against Marlin’s better, more reproachful judgment — follow her to the California coast where they are separated in Sigourney Weaver’s Marine-Life Institute in Morro Bay.

The charisma of Dory’s character takes center stage so commandingly that Nemo and Marlin, who we came to love in the previous film, become quibbling sidekicks. There’s a good reason for this. Dory’s power as a character resides, well, first in Ellen’s perfect voiceover and second in the fact that she forces us to confront an uncomfortable reality, what equates to an intellectual disability. Initially, as viewers, we’re thrown off by this, but we learn to get comfortable with her; our moviegoing lives get used to her and the discomfort she represents. We learn to feel for her but not to pity her.

FINDING DORY – Marlin and Nemo get guidance from a pair of lazy sea lions in an effort to catch up with Dory. Featuring Idris Elba as the voice of Fluke and Dominic West as the voice of Rudder, "Finding Dory" opens on June 17, 2016. ©2016 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

When I saw Finding Nemo as a child, Dory was mostly funny, but also a little bit scary — scary because she made me uncomfortable. I knew that memory loss was a very painful reality, and although I did understand that her condition could be funny, I had to wonder: Did the filmmakers have to create her this way? She kept forgetting the most basic plot points and, amidst the vast blue sea, the whole film felt pretty surreal.

In Finding Dory, the filmmakers decided not to shy away from that discomfort but to swim (ah ha) deeper into it. Dory is just as cloudy-eyed and disoriented as ever. In some moments, it is truly heartbreaking. In others, Dory makes us laugh. Most of the people I know suffering from long-term illness, whether mental or physical, are often, but not always, down-and-out about it. In fact, a sense of humor about themselves and their condition often keeps them afloat and prevents their friends or caretakers from walking on eggshells around them. As Ethan wrote in Law and Gospel, humor is a fruit of the Gospel: “In various ways, either through satire or self-deprecation, humor is a way of uncoupling the truth from its sting.”

To me, this is one of Pixar’s most remarkable gifts to date, to illustrate a mental health issue and, by using a sense of humor, make it more familiar to a kid audience — while at the same time not diminishing its gravity. We may come to find that Dory gives us some ground to stand on when our grandparents forget our names; we’ve seen this before. We are heartbroken, but not disoriented; we are frustrated, but not afraid. For the cultural consciousness, Dory represents a very baby step towards accepting mental illness, toward learning that the mentally ill are equally as likely to produce the good humor of the Gospel and that they may very well be central characters — and not only in tear-jerkers.

The most important thing Dory forgets is how much she is loved. This is the main driving factor behind her constant sense of homelessness, her unending need to search for a better place. We are all like this. As Sarah pointed out last week, people make bad choices when they are “acting out of anxiety and fear, hurt and blame, all because they have forgotten how loved they are.” But Marlin and Nemo risk their lives — flying across the sky in the clutches of a bird named Becky — to find Dory and remind her that no matter how forgetful she may be, she is and will always be loved.


Her memory loss also means, however, that she is always open to new ideas — ideas that come from outside herself. She is constantly looking for new possibilities and never gets cynical. She is always up for meeting new characters and accepts each new fish’s particular strangeness with a wide-eyed admiration. In this sense, her slate is always being washed clean. And she is always washing clean the slates of others: Marlin’s, for example. She forgets all the bad things he says about her, as if he never even said them. “Marlin never really believed that I could speak whale,” she explains, “but, you know, he trusts me anyways.” She completely forgets that he doesn’t trust her at all; in fact, his distrust of her is what leads her to get lost in the first place. He’d told her to go away, that she was dangerous for him and his son, and so she swam off and was separated from them.

When they are reunited, she doesn’t need an apology. Her memory loss means that his slate is clear. This is the good news offered by Christianity. Because of Dory’s illness, because of God’s suffering through Christ, we are off the hook. Our sins, our mistakes — that time we spilled communion wine on our church guest’s white shorts — are gone. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Ps 103.12). Uncomfortable with this, Marlin apologizes anyway.

Dory’s story continues to remind us of Christ’s story from several angles — first, as much as Nemo and Marlin are searching for Dory, she is searching for her parents who are lonely without her. In the same way that she searched for Nemo in the first film, she now searches for her parents, relentlessly, like a woman turning over cushions for lost coins. Beyond this, all the characters begin asking themselves: “What would Dory do?” You can almost see the lights turn on in their eyes as they realize that Dory’s absurd, out-of-control mentally-ill way of living is the only way of living; and only because of her suffering is she somehow special. As is pointed out in the Gospel According to Pixar, only the losers win in the end.

For the sake of finding her family, Dory gets herself into some crazy situations. More times than you can count, she finds herself slipping down the drain, flipping through the air, crashing an 18-wheeler into the Pacific Ocean — “He who loses his life will save it.” Nothing that happens in Sigourney Weaver’s Marine-Life Institute is within Dory’s control, so she lives with her hands — fins — wide open. And it’s not her good deeds, her happy memories, her sound doctrine, her stable lifestyle, or her steady income that reunite her with her family. It’s her downward spiral, totally out-of-control empty-mindedness that drops her into the quiet blue water where her family awaits, where they rush to her, and where she is embraced in a deep, deep love that she could never forget.