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The Secret Life of Pets
(2016)

(SPOILERS) As engineers of multi-layered screenplays, Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment are great gag writers. While Pixar slides inexorably into a stew of incontinent sequels and repetitive emotional journeys (in which every single director has to ram home the point of inclusiveness and family ad nauseam), Universal has struck a distinctive path which is, in its own way, just as unbalanced. Refreshingly, they’re not really very comfortable with all that disposably sincere, touchy-feely stuff, much keener just to get on with delivering the punchlines, but they fall short in addressing the consequences. Since they aren’t able to command cinema attendance on the basis of a five-minute short – except preceding the main featurette –  they have to somehow inflate the remaining 85 minutes with an encumbrance called plot. The Secret Life of Pets is stuffed full of great visual jokes and sly, and crude, observational humour, but it doesn’t wholly satisfy as a rounded feature, at least not in the way the best of the last two decades of CGI animation do.


And that’s because no one here seems really invested in telling a story. That should be no surprise with Chris Renaud of the Despicable Mes co-directing (even the first was thin on plot), with first-timer Yarrow Cheney (set to tackle a remake of How the Grinch Stole Christmas next).  So too the writers, though collectively seasoned, lack credits screaming substance.  Brian Lynch co-wrote Minions, similarly big on set-pieces and wafer-thing on the joining material, while Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul include other unremarkable Illumination fare on the resumés, as well as The Santa Clause 2. But they did deliver the screenplay for the really very good Horton Hears a Who! so they are capable when they put their minds to it.


Unlike the also animal-themed, alt-world Zootopia, Pets exists mostly as a peg on which to fasten a series of writers’ room brainstormed pet-based tickles. They’re good as far as they go, some hilarious, even though I continue to be amazed at just how acceptable piss and shit jokes are in U certificate movies –  what with the bare Minion arses pressing for attention in the preceding short, Illumination have no qualms about pandering to lowest common denominators – but the surrounding plot is strictly pedestrian. 


The idea (what animals get up to when their owners aren’t around) isn’t exactly a new one, the most recent iteration of note being Cats & Dogs (which, as here, egregiously offered canine rather than feline leads, and also like this one fails to realise that said felines service all the best characters and chuckles), and Renaud and Yarrow unleash a slew of animal vignettes, where they are rocking out to System of a Down, messing up the house, raiding the fridge, watching Spanish soaps (?), chasing butterflies or laser lights, and – yes – pissing and shitting. And the hit ratio is pretty high.


The problem with the picture isn’t so much the focus on a couple of hounds, it’s that that those hounds aren’t particularly endearing. Terrier Max (Louis C.K.) and pound-found Newfoundland Duke (Eric Stonestreet), vie for supremacy when Max’s dopey owner brings the latter home, despite the latter being aesthetically unappealing and having a personality to match. Max/C.K. is agreeable enough, if rather indifferent as protagonist pooches go, but Duke/Stonestreet is entirely unsympathetic, and because Illumination have little concept of character arcs (not that I’m necessarily suggesting they take notes from Pixar), we transition rather suddenly from finding him irksomely self-centred to being expected to give a flying Airedale for his fate.  


It might have been better if he had simply remained a bastard, but Illumination feels need to approximate the same beats as everyone else in town, because that’s the way all animations have to be (nothing like assuming your young audience is unable to assimilate a variety of storytelling modalities). Just as half-hearted is Max’s final scene reciprocation of love for Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate), although this at least seems to be verging on acknowledging the artificial nature of such forced final curtain frivolities.


If Max and Duke are endorsement-challenged, the lead villain (Kevin Hart’s rabbit Snowball) isn’t up to scratch either. As the Empire review points out, the fluffy-but-fiendish cutie pie is an overdone gag at this point, and Hart’s quick-fire dialogue is also an overfamiliar and obvious choice. Not enough is made of his anti-owner bias, such that it services an ending where he too reverts to a cutesy pie pet. Other areas are also well-worn, but still have their stylistic merits, including a sausage factory dream sequence, and an old standby that never grows old: an animal in drag. This time it’s a pig dressed as a mother pushing a pram, adding a pleasingly warped quality to the picture for a moment or two.


And there’s enough solid observational material that the plot shortcomings aren’t a deal-breaker. Among several strong supporting characters are Albert Brooks’ red-tailed hawk Tiberius (Brooks is having a good voiceover summer, with this and Finding Dory), Chloe (Lake Bell), an obese tabby cat who looks down on dogs’ behaviour (unfortunately she also cares deep down; the gags where she doesn’t are terrific), and Pops, a wheel-based elderly basset hound with a cutting line in wizened, caustic dismissiveness (voiced by Dana Carvey, not that you’d realise).


Ozone, an underused scrawny Sphynx cat voiced by Steve Coogan, gets the prize for the best vocal characterisation, but he’s also the most inventively visualised. One noticeable aspect – as is inevitable with all the animation houses, to a greater or lesser extent – is Illumination’s signature style, from the Gru-esque mannerisms of Tiberius to the squirrels that sound a shade like Minions, so it’s very welcome to see a character so different.


Still, someone should really go for the full-on grotesque in a mainstream animation at some point, ploughing into Meet the Feebles territory, only without the prohibitive levels of jaundice and filth, to see if a shake-up can find a receptive audience. And definitely someone should call a moratorium on the incessant dance anthem cheese infecting every animation out there (“What do you mean?”, I hear you cry, “It’s the much loved singing twig starlet Taylor Swift”; here’s me pulling a cat face); this one has it plastered over the opening credits, while the Alexandre Desplat score itself is closer to a smug Randy Newman Pixar piece.


Pets’ 3D is frequently surprisingly in your face. I don’t know that I’m a huge fan of 3D used to throw things at the audience, but it works in context of a gag-based movie, even if they’re mostly more about shock value rather than funnies (ducking out the way of an alligator or viper).


I wouldn’t say The Secret Life of Pets is exactly a missed opportunity, then, since it largely makes the most of its potential for pet-based humour, but it fails to summon up anything new narratively (there’s even a tiresome final fight in which Chloe goes all Neo, out-of-the-blue, as if it wasn’t already passé when Kung Fu Panda did it seven years after Shrek). In some ways the Minions short is more successful than the main feature, not only because brevity shows them at their best, but because it highlights that there’s some way to go before Illumination can get a plot together you’re invested in; maybe Sing, in which a koala stages a, naturally, singing completion, will do that. Ironically, Zootopia took the reverse route to Pets; it wasn’t a particularly bust-a-gut movie, but succeeded because it was sufficiently confident in storytelling that it didn’t have to rely solely on emotional journeys or slapstick.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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