A whale performs at SeaWorld in a scene from "Blackfish." (Magnolia Pictures )
“Finding Dory” may be undergoing a sea change as Pixar is taking a page from a little-seen whale documentary.
The Walt Disney-owned animation studio is hard at work on "Finding Dory," a follow-up to the 2003 oceanic blockbuster "Finding Nemo." But this spring, after Pixar executives viewed "Blackfish," which raises sharp questions about the health of whales in captivity, the studio decided to make substantial changes to the "Dory" script.
According to Louie Psihoyos, who directed the Oscar-winning dolphin slaughter documentary “The Cove,” Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter and “Dory” director Andrew Stanton sat down with “Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite in April after seeing her movie.
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“At the end of the [Pixar] movie, some marine mammals are sent to an aquatic park/rehab facility -- a SeaWorld-type environment,” explained Psihoyos, who heard about the meeting through a friend in the animal rights movement who lives near Pixar’s Emeryville, Calif., campus. “After seeing ‘Blackfish,’ they retooled the film so that the sea creatures now have the choice to leave that marine park. They told Gabriela they didn’t want to look back on this film in 50 years and have it be their ‘Song of the South,'" a reference to the 1946 Disney musical that was widely viewed to be racist.
Pixar declined to comment. Cowperthwaite confirmed she screened the film on the studio's Northern California campus, but would only say that employees there were deeply "impacted" by her movie.
"These are obviously people who are dedicated to researching every topic they cover," the filmmaker said. "Whether 'Blackfish' affects their creative decisions, I can't say."
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The plot for "Finding Dory," set for release in November 2015, is not yet locked. At Pixar, as at many other animation studios, filmmakers often make changes to stories up until the final months before release.
However, the story will revolve around an amnesiac blue fish voiced by Ellen DeGeneres who doesn't know who raised her. Dory was a key character in "Finding Nemo," a box office hit that grossed $921.7 million worldwide and won the Oscar for animated feature.
Although Pixar films are intended for family audiences, it's not unusual for them to examine social or political issues -- the Lasseter-directed "Cars 2" included a subplot about alternative fuel; Stanton's "WALL-E" takes place on a deserted, trash-strewn future Earth.
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"Blackfish" is a look into what caused a killer whale to fatally attack SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. The movie began its limited theatrical release in mid-July and has grossed around $700,000. The documentary will likely be wider seen when it debuts on CNN on Oct. 24.
The well-reviewed movie has raised the ire of SeaWorld. Days before the film hit theaters, the company sent a letter to film critics addressing what it claims are inaccuracies in the movie. In recent weeks, the heat on the park chain has increased as two separate videos depicting animals stranded outside of SeaWorld pools have gone viral.
Times staff writer Rebecca Keegan contributed to this report.
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