Dory: Champion of Mental Illness and Special Needs
Without spoiling the film whose title already hints at the outcome, Finding Dory is a surprisingly poignant film about what it’s like to be faced with a mental illness, have special needs and the meaning of family. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting there to be so much depth and social commentary in a children’s movie sequel about a fish, but this one speaks to many, especially individuals and families who live with these disorders.
In the film, we flashback to Dory’s childhood with her parents and the challenges she faced trying to accomplish common tasks like friendship making or remembering where she lives. While Dory’s parents worry if she’ll ever make friends or manage on her own, they never give up in believing her ability to live a healthy, wonderful life. If you have a child with on the Autism Spectrum, with a learning disability, developmental delays or other, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Along the film’s journey, Dory encounters friends with vision and sensory issues including the grumpy, loveable octopus Hank who clearly exhibits signs of PTSD. Of course there’s sweet Nemo and his smaller-than-average fin and Marlin, his anxiety-ridden dad. But it’s Dory who is the heart of this film. From suffering a panic attack to trying to work through problems in spite of her short-term memory loss, Dory is never negative and always confident in her abilities to sort things out.
I applaud the writers for Dory’s openness about her disorder with her friends and their acceptance of her. Even when her memory loss frustrates them, Dory’s friends are quickly reminded that her disorder is just one part of her. It’s the kindness, the optimism, the goofiness that define her character.
Perhaps I am reading into Finding Dory more than the average viewer, but I felt its message was so clearly defined I’m sure other parents and children will pick up on the underlying theme. For anyone with a mental health or physical challenge, it’s so easy to relate to these characters. They are not stereotypes, but determined, warm, and humorous sea creatures.
The film ends with what is the definition of family. Dory, Marlin, and Nemo are not your cookie-cutter family. He’s a widower and technically they aren’t married, but there is love and friendship, compassion, empathy, and the raising of little Nemo. Together with their community of sea friends, they make up a very different kind of family, one rooted in friendship rather than familial ties.
There’s so much to be said about a film that makes all people feel comfortable and connected, especially for who constantly have to explain, hide, or face discrimination for their disorder. Any story where a person can connect to a character who is not being met with criticism or rejection should be celebrated. Bravo to the filmmakers and to Ellen DeGeneres for bringing such a human character to life, even if she is a fish.