The Secret Life of Pets and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures
Directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney
Is it finally out!? OH THANK GOODNESS!! Whether or not this movie is actually good, at least we no longer have to see those same trailers over and over and OVER again. The marketing for this movie was absolutely insane and was in front of every damn movie I saw. They played this so much that now I don’t like Downtown by Macklemore anymore. THANKS A LOT ILLUMINATION ENTERTAINMENT!! Still, it’s not always fair to judge a movie by how obnoxiously they market it, and I did see a little bit of potential here before that hope was snuffed by the sheer incessantness of the advertisements so maybe there’s light at the end of this tunnel! Let’s find out!!
The movie is all about Max (Louis CK) who’s living a perfect life with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) who does her human stuff during the day but always comes back to find Max waiting for her. One day however, she up and ruins the perfect setup they have going by bringing a new dog home with her named Duke (Eric Stonestreet) which is a shakeup that Max is not happy about for a myriad of reasons; the least of which being that this dog is HUGE and is probably not gonna be too friendly to the much smaller Max considering how territorial dogs can be. Oh well! They’ll learn to get along eventually, right? Well I wouldn’t DREAM of spoiling this movie, but before anything like that can take place, they get into a huge fight in the dog park and are stuck in the middle of New York City without collars and are just unfortunate enough to keep running into either Animal Control Workers, or a bunch of Animal Revolutionaries led by the rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart) who want the two of them dead for convoluted reasons. While all that is going on, a bunch of pets at their apartment building band together to find Max and Duke before it’s too late! The group is led up by a little Pomeranian named Gidget (Jenny Slate), and is made up of a cat named Chloe (Lake Bell), a few dogs in the building (Bobby Moynihan and Hannibal Buress), a small bird who I don’t recall having any lines but is apparently played by Tara Strong, a guinea pig named Norman (Chris Renaud) and a hawk named Tiberius who’s played by Albert Brooks as you would expect a vicious animal to be played by Albert Brooks. Will Max and Duke manage to find their way home without getting murdered by humans or other animals in the process? Will their friends manage to find those two or will they end up getting just as lost in the process? Why do I get the feeling I’ve seen this movie already?
When I went to see this, the theater had accidentally put on Finding Dory before realizing their mistake and switching to the right movie. It’s not often that something THAT serendipitous happens right before your eyes as the best way to describe this movie is as a weak sauce Pixar clone. Now that’s probably not a huge shock to a lot of you as the trailers made it clear that this was going to be a about a secret world that is hidden away from the humans where two characters are in a dick measuring contest for the affection of their owner and nearly lose everything in the process. However, it’s not just the fact that they’re blatantly copying the plot of Toy Story (and Toy Story 2 to a certain extent). The movie feels like it’s completely missed the forest for the trees, what with it trying to emulate the feel of Pixar film, yet has none of the polish, sincerity, or originality that made Pixar the driving force in animation it is today. Oh, and the score in this film when they aren’t using pop songs is what I can only classify as Generic Randy Neman Ditties (most reminiscent of his work on Monsters Inc) which isn’t BAD I guess, but is just another example of this movie trying to be Pixar Lite. This is just a pretender to the throne at best; an okay one if you’re in desperate need for an animated movie and have already seen Finding Dory, but a pretender none the less.
So where does this fall short in trying to be Pixar? The movie tries so desperately to have a lot of heart at points but it’s overly manipulative and feels tacked on where as Pixar can make that feel completely effortless. At the tail end of the second act there’s this big flashback backstory that’s reminiscent of what Pixar did with Jessie in Toy Story 2 or even the opening of Up, but it serves no purpose other than to elicit sympathy points for a character who hasn’t deserved any yet. I guess it was easier than to have him admit to his own failings and realize who he’s hurt, but the easy route is not what you should be taking if you want to be Pixar. I’ll grant you that the Jessie flashback from Toy Story 2 wasn’t too dissimilar in that they’re both there to give the audience a HUGE gut punch, but at least that movie managed to build up to it what with the flashback being a callback to Woody’s own fears about something similar happening to him, not to mention that it manages to fit with Jessie’s actions up to that point in the story. This flashback on the other hand has almost NO bearing to the character whose backstory is getting filled out, and it comes off as cheap instead of truly heartfelt.
In general, this movie lacks polish (outside the animation which is actually pretty good). Characters move all around the city without any real sense of time or distance, with one particularly blatant example of this being this one scene where a bunch of animals are in a second story apartment but then suddenly are on the roof of a forty story high rise. Shit like that happens ALL the time in here as Max and Duke are able to travel all over the city, always knowing where they’re going yet never able to just spend that energy to just calmly walk their asses back to their apartment. Furthermore, the strength and allegiances of characters (particularly the Flushed Pet Society) are never consistent, where in one scene a pig, bunny, and lizard are able to overpower and grievously injure two Animal Control Workers, but then those same exact animals are unable to do it a second time despite the fact that those Animal Control Workers are STILL GREVIOUSLY INJURED! Characters that seem threatening or manipulative turn out to not be as they become good guys at the drop of a hat for little reason other than to keep this plot moving, and it ends up happing so much that the movie ends up not really having an antagonist. Everyone is happy by the end of this except maybe the Animal Control guys who… might be dead? Okay, they’re PROBABLY not (I might have missed a scene where they were flung to safety before the EPIC CLIMAX) but you wouldn’t care either way because they are merely functional bad guys instead of outright evil. They’re there to raise the stakes whenever they show up just so the audience doesn’t fall asleep because things are going fine for five minutes.
The voice acting is fine for the most part, though there are a few people in here that I kind of have a problem with. Kevin Hart plays the bunny leader of the Flushed Pets Coalition, and he ends up having WAY too much screen time just go on and on and on with his PG Kevin Hart Shtick and the movie stops dead whenever he’s on screen because of this. Kevin Hart isn’t BAD in the role, but it ends up being too much and takes time away from the actual plot here which as we’ve discussed could have used another pass on the script and a bit more fleshing out. The worst voice actor here is sadly Louis CK who sounds… well exactly what you’d expect Louis CK would sound in a cynically created kid’s movie from the people who are still milking the whole Minions thing. He sounds like he’s doing a really obvious exaggerated affectation as if he’s doing this under duress or contractual obligation and I guess it’s KINDA funny that someone in casting thought he would make a great lead in a children’s movie (why don’t they get Werner Herzog or Actual Cannibal Shia LaBeouf for the sequel?) but if you ACTUALLY wanted to like this movie, than either his insincere delivery or his sincerely bad voice acting chops are gonna end up grating on you right away.
There are some decent aspects of this, lest I would have HATED this movie rather than merely be nonpluses by it. The animation in here is really good and very exaggerated which fits the tone of the movie quite well. The facial features in particular are very cartoonish which allows for a wide range of emotions through subtle changes; in particular I think Gidget has an ingeniously streamlined design that lets her get across a lot of character without looking overly complicated. If the budget of this movie actually is what it’s being reported to be (seventy-five million) then that is REALLY impressive considering how nice it ended up looking for a CG animated feature. On top of that, the whole voice cast (minus Louis CK and also Dana Carvey who’s not doing a very convincing old person voice) is putting their all into the material with Jenny Slate, Lake Bell, Albert Brooks, and Michael Beattie being standouts. And hey! The movie even managed to throw in an Andrew WK song at the very end, so that’s nice I guess.
The movie does benefit from trying to be a Pixar movie as weak-sauce Pixar is still pretty good (like how gangster films are always trying to rip-off Goodfellas), but that’s all this movie is. When you look at a Pixar film, or at least the really good ones, there is SO much going on below the surface that you may not be fully conscious of but is that extra bit of care and attention that lets it occupy a permanent space in your heart. This movie on the other hand is only skin deep. It has the look, and MAYBE a touch of the feel of a Pixar film, but if you try to mine for deeper meanings or themes, then you’ll find that there really isn’t anything there. Not every film has to be an Oscar winner or an all-time classic, and this is certainly not one of those. It’s still enjoyable though and it has some nice animation to keep your attention, so while it’s not a movie you have to run out and see in the theater, it is decent enough that I would recommend you check it out at some point. Hell, the next Pixar movie is supposedly Cars 3, so maybe a Pixar knock off is the best we’ll get for a while.
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