The Secret Life of Pets, 2016.
Directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney.
Featuring the voice talents of Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Lake Bell, Ellie Kemper, Bobby Moynihan, Hannibal Buress and Albert Brooks.
A group of pets have to put their differences aside so that they can find their way back to their home in Manhattan.
When it comes to CGI animation, Illumination Studios are a relative newcomer in the industry. The scored an enormous hit with the Despicable Me franchise and the Minions spin-off (the appeal and success of which baffles me), and this summer they’ve emerged with that rarest of things – an animated film that is neither a sequel, a spin-off or an adaptation of anything. The story revolves around a dog called Max, whose happy life with his beloved owner Katie is interrupted when she brings home Duke, a huge dog from the pound. There’s instant animosity between them, and after trying to lose each other in the park they end up with Animal Control on their tail(s), and to evade capture they’re force to join up with a group of human-hating ex-pets led by a crazed rabbit called Snowball. When Gidget, a female dog in Max’s apartment building who has a crush on him, notices they’re missing she mobilises their animal friends to search the city, find them and bring them home.
Max and Duke are voiced by Louis C.K. and Eric Stonestreet respectively, and in my opinion their characters and voices were decent enough to carry the plot, but ultimately they weren’t distinctive enough to be truly memorable. Their get-along-and-get-home journey/relationship mirrors that of Woody and Buzz in the first Toy Story, but lacks the spark that made them such a great screen pair. I personally found Gidget (voiced by Jenny Slate) to be a more interesting and endearing character, but the film’s clear selling point is Snowball (voiced by Kevin Hart in his typically manic style). His character looks exactly like the rabbit from Pixar’s classic short film Presto, and he has all the best lines – highlights include “I feel heroic … and HANDSOME!”, his mourning of Ricky (a dead goose who was apparently the most bad-ass anti-human animal he ever met), and any time he hysterically orders his followers to chase or attack Max and Duke. He’s so funny, you can forgive the fact that none of the other dogs, cats and birds are quite as interesting (Albert Brooks’ twitchy hawk character Tiberius being the possible exception).
All of the human characters in the film have the same ‘funhouse mirror’ look as they did in Despicable Me, and the animals are caricatured to humorous (and in the case of one hairless cat, scary) effect. The most impressive visual aspect of the film, however, is the New York environment – the buildings are impossibly tall, and the streets, parks and the sewers are rich with colour and detail, and a lot of the shots were clearly designed with eye-popping 3D in mind (snakes snapping their jaws, vertiginous building sites, an opening flight through Central Park etc.) There’s even a surreal dream sequence in a sausage factory (which, to a dog, is pretty much heaven) that brings to mind early Disney animations like the Flowers and Trees cartoon and the Pink Elephants sequence in Dumbo.
There was a brief period after the film’s introduction (which contained pretty much all the footage that was shown in the teaser trailers) when I started to wonder if they had packed all the funny bits into those few brief minutes, but once the animals were let loose in the city the film found its sense of momentum. Even though Pets is a reasonably funny film, one can’t help but think that if Pixar had made it it would have been just as funny (if not more so) and also had a a stronger emotional core, which would have elevated it from decent summer flick to beloved classic. Case in point, there is one scene where Duke returns to the house where his previous owner lived, only to find another family lives there now, which feels like a set-up for an emotional moment that never truly gets resolved – a moment later, Snowball’s gang shows up and the chase resumes. On the one hand it felt like a story/character beat had been cut out, but on the other hand it was rather refreshing not to have that moment play out as you would expect – besides, as I said, the film is at its best when it (literally) cuts to the chase. This is helped by a lovely score by Alexandre Desplat, that flips between sweet and exciting without ever feeling jarring.
All in all this is an entertaining children’s film, with likeable characters and several laugh out loud moments. Hopefully when the inevitable sequel arrives in a couple of years time we’ll get a good helping of Snowball again (as well as Leonard, the heavy-metal-loving poodle), and we’ll get to know Max and Duke a bit better.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
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