On The Secret Life of Pets, subpar animation, and story beats masquerading as actual story
The Secret Life of Pets Universal Pictures
Director: Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud
Screenplay: Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch
Starring: The voices of Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart, Lake Bell, Steve Coogan, Bobby Moynihan, Albert Brooks, Dana Carvey and Ellie Kemper
Rated PG / 1 hour, 27 minutes / 1.85:1
July 8, 2016
(out of four)
I've never actually seen an animal-control officer. Not once, in my entire life. Don't get me wrong, I'm not denying their existence. To reiterate: "Animal-control officer" is definitely not a profession invented wholly by Hollywood screenwriters to antagonize their fictional, adventure-seeking mammals. No one is saying that. What I am saying is that it's the kind of person that seems to only exist in movies, never in real life. Like a park ranger, or hotel concierge.
But oh, how quickly they appear once a furry protagonist gets out of the house. And how zealous they all are! Has there ever been an apathetic animal-control officer in a movie, who sees our canine hero without its leash, with no human supervision, in the middle of the city, and just looks the other way? But I digress. That this stock character makes for such an easy adversary enables movies like The Secret Life of Pets to be as lazy as they are. I mean, it's not automatically a sign of laziness, but in this case it certainly speaks to a lack of inspiration. The latest animated effort from Illumination Entertainment is a collection of half-conceived circumstances and barely passable jokes, held together by the winning personalities of its voice cast.
The aforementioned animal-control officer shows up a couple of times when it's narratively expedient, and in that regard it fits well enough. But the film relies too much on conveniences and easy detours like that, and not enough (or at all) on finding anything specific to do with itself. It's a movie made up of first ideas and jumping-off points, few of which really go anywhere. There are just enough of them stacked against each other that we wind up with some semblance of a journey - a meaningless point B from a perfectly promising point A. This is a film about pets getting quite accidentally lost in the city, but it's unwilling to actually get itself lost - to meander or float around, or to follow comedic sparks down unexpected rabbit holes. It keeps on forcing the issue, primarily intent - as so many second-rate animated movies are - on keeping things fast and noisy for little kids instead of igniting their emotions or imaginations.
First it's a domestic struggle between a terrier named Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) and his owner's unexpected new dog, Duke (Eric Stonestreet). But their differences get resolved quickly enough. Only by that point, they've gotten separated from their dog walker, and have to escape the grasp of Animal Control. When they do that, they're off to the underground, taken under the wing of a rabbit named Snowball (Kevin Hart) and his ragtag group of discarded pets. That little excursion doesn't last very long, either, as Max and Duke are rescued by their neighbors - among them Gidget (Jenny Slate), a Pomeranian; Chloe (Lake Bell), a fat purple cat; and Buddy (Hannibal Buress), a dachsund - and attempt to make their way back home. More and more diversions follow after that - a cheap backstory about Duke's former owner, an adventure in a sausage factory, a car chase on the Brooklyn Bridge - which would be great, if they were any fun, or offered anything new or unique to the oversaturated world of animated animal adventures. But they (mostly) aren't and they (mostly) don't.
The Secret Life of Pets clearly wants to be the Toy Story of a new generation - it has loosely the same concept (pets instead of toys, adult homes instead of childhood bedrooms) and begins with a replication of the Woody/Buzz character dynamic. But for those ambitions to pay off, the filmmakers would have had to look closer at the Pixar story process, which at its best is so well-honed that nothing ever seems arbitrary. With this movie, almost everything does.
Where it succeeds is in its voice work. It's not the litany of recognizable names that matters - that's par for the course for animated cinema, for better and worse - but the impressive specificity of the voice performances. Louis C.K.'s gentle aloofness. Jenny Slate's neurotic, self-conscious, enthusiastic sweetness. Steve Coogan's scenery-chewing comic menace. Kevin Hart's manic, violent energy. And then there's Albert Brooks, who can do anything - and this time does a mean red-tailed hawk.
And despite my problems with the film's generic animation style, I must draw attention to one wonderfully expressive element of its art direction. The apartment where Max and his friends reside is a deep, burgundy brick building - at a distance it's almost rustic, like an old country house (but, y'know, a lot taller) - that fits snugly in a neighborhood of attractive browns and quieter reds. It draws a sharp emotional contrast between the monochromatic blues and cool, impersonal sheen of the rest of the city. Their isolation from where they belong - the homes they love - is emphasized simply by the shift in architectural vernacular. Whenever we return to that warm red building, it feels like we're being welcomed home.