The Number One Movie in America: Finding Dory

By Sean Collier

December 15, 2019

When fish are kawaii.

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How did “Finding Dory” become one of the top-grossing films of all time?

As near as I can figure: nostalgia, patience and calendar placement. Sometimes there’s a formula to these things.

If we were to divide Pixar’s estimable output into phases — if Marvel can do it, why can’t everyone? — the first period would probably last from “Toy Story,” in 1995, through “The Incredibles,” in 2004. “Finding Nemo,” the studio’s fifth film, was released in May of 2003. So, to perform some very simple math: A 12-year-old who saw “Finding Nemo” in the theater would’ve been 25 when its sequel, “Finding Dory,” debuted in June of 2016.

In other words, there were plenty of kids who approached adolescence with Dory and Marlin in their minds and had kids of their own by the time the fish returned for a second round.

That year also allows for plenty of return viewing for slightly younger moviegoers, as the two films would’ve effectively bookended many a matriculation. A five-year-old at the time of “Finding Nemo” would’ve been fresh out of high school when “Finding Dory” debuted; similar to the 15-year gap between “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 3,” the two “Finding” films represented the beginning and end of childhood (and thus a natural wellspring of nostalgia) for many viewers.

Oh, yeah: and “Finding Dory” came out right at the beginning of summer, when parents are most inclined to find a quiet place to park their children for a precious few hours. In the modern era, any well-made and well-marketed animated film debuting in June has a decent chance to debut north of $100 million. (An untested property, “The Secret Life of Pets,” did so just a few weeks after “Dory.”)

Even with all those factors contributing to its box-office potential, “Finding Dory” did huge business. It won its opening weekend with a stunning $135 million — at the time, a record for an animated film — besting the second-place finisher, the debuting “Central Intelligence,” by a full hundred million dollars. It held onto the top spot for the next two weekends, turning another anticipated sequel, “Independence Day: Resurgence,” into a runner-up.

“Finding Dory” would go on to make more than $486 million at domestic theaters; that set a new record for animated films. (It has since ceded that title to “Incredibles 2,” and sits in either second or third, depending on how you count the new “Lion King.”) Among a high-profile slate of 2016 releases, only “Rogue One” earned more than “Finding Dory,” which bested such gargantuan competition as “Captain America: Civil War,” “Deadpool,” “Zootopia” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

It currently stands as the 15th highest-grossing film of all time.

Obviously, it helps that “Finding Dory” is pretty darn good. While it lacks the tight narrative structure of Pixar’s most ambitious efforts, it is a beautiful, charming and funny film. Its fairly rote premise — plenty of cartoon characters have tracked down their parents over the years — belies a more moving subtext. This is a film fundamentally about trusting the differently abled, a cinematic promise that letting your children find their way in the world will be rewarded.

Also, the business with the sea lions is really funny.

Does that earn, in some sort of objective sense, “Finding Dory” a place among the 20 most successful films of all time? Maybe not. But if you combine above-average quality with a wallop of nostalgia — and some good timing — there’s plenty of money in it.

“Finding Dory” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1982. Please listen and subscribe!

Next time: In a two-part holiday episode, we’ll visit a romcom which may or may not be a Christmas movie and a comedy that definitely is. How did “Finding Dory” become one of the top-grossing films of all time?

As near as I can figure: nostalgia, patience and calendar placement. Sometimes there’s a formula to these things.




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If we were to divide Pixar’s estimable output into phases — if Marvel can do it, why can’t everyone? — the first period would probably last from “Toy Story,” in 1995, through “The Incredibles,” in 2004. “Finding Nemo,” the studio’s fifth film, was released in May of 2003. So, to perform some very simple math: A 12-year-old who saw “Finding Nemo” in the theater would’ve been 25 when its sequel, “Finding Dory,” debuted in June of 2016.

In other words, there were plenty of kids who approached adolescence with Dory and Marlin in their minds and had kids of their own by the time the fish returned for a second round.

That year also allows for plenty of return viewing for slightly younger moviegoers, as the two films would’ve effectively bookended many a matriculation. A five-year-old at the time of “Finding Nemo” would’ve been fresh out of high school when “Finding Dory” debuted; similar to the 15-year gap between “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 3,” the two “Finding” films represented the beginning and end of childhood (and thus a natural wellspring of nostalgia) for many viewers.

Oh, yeah: and “Finding Dory” came out right at the beginning of summer, when parents are most inclined to find a quiet place to park their children for a precious few hours. In the modern era, any well-made and well-marketed animated film debuting in June has a decent chance to debut north of $100 million. (An untested property, “The Secret Life of Pets,” did so just a few weeks after “Dory.”)

Even with all those factors contributing to its box-office potential, “Finding Dory” did huge business. It won its opening weekend with a stunning $135 million — at the time, a record for an animated film — besting the second-place finisher, the debuting “Central Intelligence,” by a full hundred million dollars. It held onto the top spot for the next two weekends, turning another anticipated sequel, “Independence Day: Resurgence,” into a runner-up.

“Finding Dory” would go on to make more than $486 million at domestic theaters; that set a new record for animated films. (It has since ceded that title to “Incredibles 2,” and sits in either second or third, depending on how you count the new “Lion King.”) Among a high-profile slate of 2016 releases, only “Rogue One” earned more than “Finding Dory,” which bested such gargantuan competition as “Captain America: Civil War,” “Deadpool,” “Zootopia” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

It currently stands as the 15th highest-grossing film of all time.

Obviously, it helps that “Finding Dory” is pretty darn good. While it lacks the tight narrative structure of Pixar’s most ambitious efforts, it is a beautiful, charming and funny film. Its fairly rote premise — plenty of cartoon characters have tracked down their parents over the years — belies a more moving subtext. This is a film fundamentally about trusting the differently abled, a cinematic promise that letting your children find their way in the world will be rewarded.

Also, the business with the sea lions is really funny.

Does that earn, in some sort of objective sense, “Finding Dory” a place among the 20 most successful films of all time? Maybe not. But if you combine above-average quality with a wallop of nostalgia — and some good timing — there’s plenty of money in it.

“Finding Dory” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1982. Please listen and subscribe!

Next time: In a two-part holiday episode, we’ll visit a romcom that may or may not be a Christmas movie and a comedy that definitely is.


     


 
 

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