Review: The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

The Secret Life of Pets

Rating

Director

Yarrow Cheney, Chris Renaud

Screenplay

Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch

Length

87 min.

Starring

Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Chris Renaud, Steve Coogan, Michael Beattie

MPAA Rating

PG for action and some rude humor

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Soundtrack

Poster

Review

Illumination Entertainment, with Despicable Me, established itself as a potential player in the animation field, but subsequently weaker productions and serious missteps have squandered much of that potential. The Secret Life of Pets tries to right the ship, but may not be sufficient.

Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) is the pet of a wonderful human (Ellie Kemper) who dotes on him and who shares sweet moments together with him. When she decides to bring home a rescue dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), their delicate balance is threatened and through a series of mishaps, Max and Duke end up lost in the sewers of New York where they meet unsavory discarded pets and become the subjects of a doghunt led by one of his neighbors, Gidget (Jenny Slate), who is madly in love with him.

The premise is that while we are at work, what exactly do our pets do? Apparently they go on madcap adventures just like adults and children do. The film was established early on by a spectacular film trailer that positioned each of an array of pets into wacky, adorable, and humorous situations, the funniest being the dachshund (Hannibal Buress) giving himself a massage with the electric mixer. Those scene are used early on in the film and while there’s some solid comedy throughout, those were the highlights.

Setting up unrealistic expectations is, unfortunately, what happens with trailers sometimes. The goal is to get butts in the seats and a great trailer can do that, but if that’s all there is to it, then it breeds disappointment. The Secret Life of Pets almost succumbs to that pitfall, but manages to provide just enough additional excitement, humor, and heart to save it from mediocrity.

Every animated film these day is compared, whether fairly or not, to Pixar. This isn’t surprising considering Pixar is the gold standard for what animated films should be. With equal doses of laughs, inventiveness, and heart, they have built a reputation that’s hard for anyone to match. With such brilliant uniqueness, when you find similarities in structure, that’s hard to overcome. Toy Story was also about a new toy threatening the delicate balance of a well oiled play environment where the original toy feels neglected and believes he will be forgotten. It matches right down to the idea that the old toy tries to get rid of the new.

The similarities don’t end there, but emulation isn’t inherently a bad thing. Illumination creates enough distinctive edges to keep it fresh in places. That doesn’t mean other films can’t mine the same territory, but when Pixar’s own prequels and sequels try diverging paths, it’s clear that there is a trove of ideas out there. Yet, with that Pixar comparison in mind, it falls flat in two other important ways.

The film’s inventiveness is limited to its concept. The audience knows that crazy adventures will befall the pets in the film, the trailers have established that. However, when it has the opportunity to strike out in new and interesting ways, it falls back into familiar tropes. There’s the dangerous underground where, in spite of trying desperately to fit in, our heroes step on their own tongues and earn the ire of that particular group. There’s the cross-city chase where our heroes are in danger of permanently being removed from the life of their owner. There’s also the moment where after a successful bit of teamwork between Duke and Max, a problem arises that pushes them apart, but will ultimately bring them back together. It’s not a spoiler, it’s what the audience expects. Pixar has succumbed to similar problems in its more recent efforts, but they aren’t trying to build a reliable brand. Illumination Entertainment is.

It also fails to live up to the Pixar Standard (TM) in the emotions department. There’s one short segment leading into the final act that had the potential to goose the tearworks. Pixar, Laika, and Disney know how to push into it and hit all the right notes. Illumination bumbles the moment, cutting it short, dodging the emotion, and attempting to get the audience to believe that it was never going to take them there. It’s a psych out of the most disheartening proportions.

Plot contrivances aside, these wonderful, if simplistic, pets are given a strong set of vocal talents to enliven them. Louis C.K. leads a spirited bunch.. Louis, Slate, Albert Brooks as the treacherous hawk Tiberius, Dana Carvey as the aged basset hound, and Lake Bell as the overweight cat Chloe are the clear standouts. Stonestreet fades harmlessly into the background, ceding too much dominance to Louis while Kevin Hart overplays his role as the fluffy bunny with a vindictive streak. They all play to their vocal strengths, but are poorly served by the writers’ characterizations.

The Secret Life of Pets will be perfectly pleasing to children, and adults will be amused by much of the humor. There are some incredibly great comedic moments, most of them involving Chloe, but the film feels like a string of funny skits put together in a feature-length product. By the time we get to the end, we haven’t necessarily formed a strong attachment to the characters, but pet lovers will no doubt identify with and likely get misty-eye at the lovely closing scenes where the pets are back to being pets.

Spoiler Discussion

Digging quickly into the bumbled emotional moment, that scene involves Max trying to get Duke reunited with the owner who lost him. We are given a Pixar-styled flashback moment, similar to the one Pixar used to brilliant effectiveness at the beginning of Up/em> wherein Duke is adopted by a kindly old man with whom they share a wonderful relationship.

When they travel to the house where the old man lived, the cat on the stoop tactlessly points out that the owner has died, we have confirmed for us precisely what the little flashback vignette of Duke and his owner together suggested. This moment is mishandled egregiously. We don’t get some kind of conversation about it, things are immediately tossed into a moment of aggression towards the new homeowners, and the ultimate shift into gears as the dog catchers come to claim the potentially dangerous animal.

There are so many narrative threads that could have been wound around these, including threats of euthanization at the pound, discovering that the old man has actually left via a neighbor who remembers Duke, or some other more mature handling of the situation. Illumination blinks, avoiding potentially negative emotions focusing instead on the positive. For a children’s movie, that may be sufficient, but Pixar never let something like that dissuade them for going for the tender moments. Illumination would be better served by considering such a tactic.

Oscar Prospects

Potentials: Animated Feature

Review Written

August 25, 2016

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