Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Film Review: The Secret Life of Pets

Sexuality/Nudity No Objection
Violence No Objection
Vulgarity No Objection
Anti-Catholic Philosophy No Objection

There are some movies that are so profoundly genre-changing that the whole world takes note and will be remembered decades from now.

The Secret Life of Pets is not one of them.

At its heart (and I'm sorry that this is not an original analysis), the movie is a bland version of the first Toy Story movie where the toys are transposed to animals.

The movie centers around Max (Louis CK), a runt of a dog who is taken in by single city girl Katie (Ellie Kemper).  The first few minutes of the movie do a fun and engaging job of getting you into the mindset of Max and his absolute affection for Katie.  This resonates so truly for any dog lover when you see how excited Max becomes at the mere idea of Katie's approach.  The movie also does an excellent job of setting up the other types of pets and pet owners as the curtain is pulled back and we look into the hidden world of our pets.  But problems occur for Max when Katie takes in another dog Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a lumbering behemoth that immediately horns in on Max's territory.  This rivalry leads to them being lost in the world and having to find their way back home.

The animation and style is pleasing enough, but there is very little to distinguish it from most other computer animated fair.  Though I do have to say, they have made New York City look like something out of epic science fiction in its immensity while never being to hyperbolic.  The jokes are pleasant, but not gut-busting.  The characters are not terrible, but they are never too terribly likable.  The plot is nice, but in no way original.  If this was a movie that was designed by a committee so that it was made to be blandly inoffensive, then they mostly succeeded.

As a parent taking a child to a movie, you could do worse.  There are only two things I you should know upfront before taking your kids.  The first is a scene where an innocent dog Gidget (Jenny Slate), is tricked by a hawk (Albert Brooks) into taking off his hood.  The hawk immediately tries to eat Gidget but fails because of his constraints.  After failing, the hawk says he's sorry and talks Gidget into removing those constraints.  If I was a parent and trying to teach my kids about "stranger danger" I would find this point in the movie counter-productive.

The second involves a character named Snowball (Kevin Hart), who leads a group of militant animals bent on the killing of humans.  His words are charged and violent, though meant to be ironically funny coming from his cute and fuzzy body.  Perhaps I am being overly sensitive, but with the inflamed rhetoric and violence in the summer of 2016, the scenes where Snowball was rallying his mob to action felt incredibly uncomfortable to watch.

But the biggest failing lies with the two main heroes: Max and Duke.  As soon as they are introduced to each other, they become fairly awful.  When either gains any kind of advantage, he immediately exploits it over the other, making it incredibly difficult to like either dog enough to care if they get home to Katie.  And yes, just like Woody and Buzz they learn more about each other and start to bond, it feels so artificial and forced that you can't help but wish you were watching something made by PIXAR instead.

This movie feels like such a wasted opportunity.  As you watch you get tiny glimpses into how fascinating this world could be to explore.  But those are like windows that you casually look in as you drive by this paint-by-numbers plot.

There is nothing great about The Secret Life of Pets.  But if you are looking for something simple and relatively safe for the family, it's not that bad.  But you would probably be better off just popping in your old copy of Toy Story.

2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

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