On paper, Finding Dory seems like a no brainer.
Finding Nemo, its predecessor, was the second highest grossing film of 2003, grossing $867 million worldwide. And Ellen DeGeneres—who voiced Dory, a forgetful but lovable blue tang—shamelessly and enthusiastically campaigned for a follow-up film, using her daytime talk show to rally support. The brain trust at Pixar was listening, but there was just one problem: Due to Dory's absentmindedness, making her the lead character would be risky.
Thankfully, Andrew Stanton has never been one to back down from a challenge.
"The truth is yes, all that nervousness was there, but I knew it was going to be there, because that's what it felt like on Toy Story 2. And we've made several sequels in between then," the director says, "so we're very aware of what we're up against when we venture out on a sequel."
So the director and his team did what Dory would do: They blindly and optimistically faced their fears. "In order to have fighting chance to make a decent sequel, you have to forget it's a sequel and try to make it the most self-standing film, as if there was never a film before it," Stanton, who also voices Crush the sea turtle, tells E! News exclusively. "It takes anywhere from three to six months when you're working on those projects to get to that place, and then once you do—you usually have about three more years left—it's an original picture to you and everybody else, and it's just as hard. Sometimes it's even harder simply because the characters are already figured out—at least half your cast is. And so you have parameters you have to stick to. You can't suddenly just decide to change something about them to make it work for your story."
Unlike the characters in Toy Story or Cars, Dory presented a unique challenge.
"She was built to be a side character. She was built to be the best sidekick and the comedic foil for a whole movie," the filmmaker explains. "When you're the main character of a picture, it means you have to be the character with the big problem that everybody has to be emotionally invested in and has to have things at stake, and so they just invariably end up having to be a little bit more serious. So, the tough part was, 'How do we make Dory even remember that she has issues and that she's changing?' Because the only way you can express that, usually, is that you have the ability to self-reflect. You have the ability to tell somebody, 'Yesterday I was depressed when I had breakfast, but now that I've talked to some friends, this morning I feel better.' But that requires you to remember!"
"That was our hardest problem, that took my writer, my co-director, my editor, my producer, my head of story—it was the smartest team I've ever worked with story-wise—and it brought us to our knees," he says. "It just took a long time for us to find this sort of grocery list of solutions of how to make her stay on track with her emotional issues."
To fix the problem, Dory was tweaked a little bit. "She's like a car that was rebuilt on the inside to work a little differently so that she could play the role of a main character," Stanton explains.
DeGeneres was on board immediately, and it soon became clear that Dory's story was the right one to tell. "The truth is, she doesn't ad-lib much—or at least not in the way that you would expect. She doesn't come up with new lines all the time," Stanton says. "She's pretty respectful, because she ran a sitcom herself before she was on a talk show. She's very respectful of the written word and how much we are already beating ourselves up."
"Ellen's style is sort of respect the written word, but what she does is she plays with how it's said," he adds. "So all these little invisible things that maybe aren't even valued when you're watching the film are hers: the hesitancies, the pauses, the interruptings of herself, the little fluctuations. That's something that you find out she gives that make it specifically Ellen."
The comedienne wasn't afraid to experiment, either. "The thing that would always surprise us is that she would make lines that are not even meant to be funny, funny," he says. "They'd be like, 'Hi. How's it going?' And she would just give it this hesitant Dory kind of off-kilter perkiness to 'Hi. How's it going?' It just charmed me to death. That's the X factor she brings to the table."
Albert Brooks also returned as Marlin, an overprotective clownfish, while the role of Nemo was recast. Hayden Rolence took over for Alexander Gould, whose voice had matured in the last 13 years. Gould returned for Finding Dory, however, voicing delivery truck drivers Carl and Tommy.
In a quest to find her parents at the Marine Life Institute in Morro Bay, Calif., Dory becomes reacquainted with an old friend: Destiny, a near-sighted whale shark (Kaitlin Olson). She also befriends Bailey (Ty Burrell), a beluga whale who temporarily lost his echolocation abilities. And then there's Hank (Ed O'Neill), a cantankerous octopus who lost one of his tentacles. He wants to be transferred to an aquarium in Ohio rather than be rehabilitated and return to the ocean.
Animating Hank proved to be an even bigger challenge than coming up with a story. An engineer worked on the character for about six months to create a new type of curve. Because Hank is squishy and flexible, he doesn't move the way other animals or people in the movie do. During the development process, one scene took nearly two years to animate.
"As a matter of fact," Stanton says, "maybe even a couple years before we started Dory could we have done it."
But achieving the impossible is what Pixar does best. "The idea of doing an octopus was exciting for everybody and such a juicy challenge. It made people want to conquer the problem. Usually you work without a net," he reveals, "because if you don't have a net, people really bust it out."
"It's dangerous," Stanton adds, "but it's fun!"
Finding Dory was released on June 17, 2016. Critics praised the family-friendly movie, and it's since earned over $1 billion at the box office. Stanton knew audiences had been clamoring for a sequel, and the desire to please its fans was strong. But he also knew that in order for the movie to succeed, he couldn't let that pressure influence how his team approached the project.
"We've worked very hard to make an environment at Pixar where we think we are truly making the movie just for ourselves and will never be showing it to the outside world," Stanton says. "I think there's an honesty as an artist when you really feel like you're alone in your studio, your writer's cabin or amongst your friends in your backyard. There's an innocence and a truth that has a chance of making it to the finished product."
"I really take that seriously—almost like a philosophical level when I work. I really want to hypnotize and convince myself, 'Nobody's going to see this.' That will allow me to be stupid, in the worst-case scenario," he tells E! News. "And in the best-case scenario, it'll make me very brave and put something up on the screen that really is effective, really works."
"Whenever something sticks like that," he says, "I translate that as, 'Wow, we managed to get a truth on the screen without it getting contaminated.'"
Finding Dory is available digitally Oct. 25 and on Blu-ray/DVD Nov. 15.