In this mid-July heat, one of the most classic summer activities is going to the dark, highly air-conditioned movie theater to sit down and relax for a while. I went to see the much anticipated “Finding Dory” a few weeks ago, and, as usual, Pixar delivered a complex and highly emotional movie. I was surprised, however, by the deep connection I felt to Dory in our adoption stories and longing to find our first families.
Most remember Dory as the talkative, optimistic, memory-impaired companion from Finding Nemo, but in this film viewers get much more backstory on Dory and how she became separated from her family. Like many adoptees, Dory’s beginning is marked by a series of seemingly unanswerable questions.
A poignant line that stuck with me was when Dory experienced one of her first flashbacks and expressed her love and the loss of her parents. She says, “All I know is that I miss them. I really, really miss them.” Turning to Marlin, she asks, “Do you know what that feels like?” This sense of ambivalent loss is one that I’ve had over and over again. Loss through adoption is unlike loss through death because there is no closure. Most adoptees are not orphans in the common connotation of the word, and so our parents and siblings still exist without us. Dory relays this message when she questions that she must have come from somewhere, and, of course she has parents, and even if she forgets their names or faces, they do not stop existing. To feel that something is missing does not require memories. I would often tell my parents that I missed my first mother, and just like Dory, all I knew was that I had something once, and it was gone now.
Dory shares a common adoptee fear that losing her parents was her fault or that somehow if she had been a better, more capable child, that she wouldn’t have been separated from them. She wonders if her parents still love her and if they will remember her. I worry that this film will resonate deeply with young adoptees who don’t necessarily have the vocabulary and ability to articulate these thoughts with their parents on their own. This article is not to discourage adoptive families from seeing the movie but to realize that there will need to be some conversations before and after the show.
As Dory traces more and more of her roots, she faces definite challenges in the search for her parents. She is able to find the place where she was born and see other blue tang fish for the first time, wondering who in the group were her parents or knew her parents. For me, going back to my hometown and living among other Chinese people for the first time was a comparable experience, and I constantly wondered if passersby were an aunt or a second cousin, and I didn’t even know it.
Dory receives heartbreaking news as the other fish tell her that they believe her parents died looking for her. As the feeling of complete loneliness sets in, she internalizes not only the loss of her parents but the loss of the hope she had along the journey. This could potentially be a very sensitive scene for those who have searched and come to a dead end or those with hopes of being in reunion someday.
In a turn of events, Dory stumbles upon a path of shells that leads to her parents. When the camera zooms out, movie viewers see that Dory’s parents had laid down shells every day since their separation pointing to where they were and hoping that Dory would find them. It was during this scene that I first shed some tears, imagining what that moment would be like for myself and what it would be like to know that my parents had actively wanted to find me. But what about adoptees who know the precise reasons why they were relinquished or those whose open adoptions have become closed for a period of time? Finding Dory raises serious questions on family, belonging, and what it means to be wanted.
Because Finding Dory is a children’s movie and not indicative of the true challenges within adoption, the movies ends with a final scene that brings Dory’s parents and Marlin and Nemo, who she adopts as family, together. This works for the movie to create a happily ever after ending but romanticizes the process of reunion, which can be very challenging and emotional for all parties, who in most situations can’t simply live in one place as one newfound unit.
As I was watching this movie, one overarching question was continuously in my mind. I wonder if millions of people can rally behind an animated fish looking for her parents, why is it still so hard when adoptees want to look for their first parents? Viewers all over the globe have spent over $135 million empathizing with little Dory and her big purple eyes. Finding Dory shows that both biological and adoptive family are important and the the need for love from one doesn’t negate the other. More than just a fun summer movie, I hope that Finding Dory can reveal to non-adopted individuals the importance of family ties for humans too.