Skip to main content

What's going on 'ere?

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.