Thursday, July 14, 2016

Movie Review: "The Secret Life of Pets" (2016)

© Universal Pictures

You can't hold it against a movie studio for going after the low-hanging fruit. And there's nothing more low-hanging than pet videos. While there is a part of me that would have been happy had The Secret Life of Pets been just a series of Vine-like vignettes—basically the Pet Collective viral videos in animated form—for it to be touching in addition to funny, there had to be some plot thrown in the mix. But with that plot comes the hyper-awareness that none of this is breaking new ground, and that the incredible voice talent is what makes it all come together amid the constant peppering of animal jokes. And we start, as most animal love stories do, when Girl Meets Pup...

In the eyes of Max the Dog (Louis C.K.), he and his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) have the perfect thing going living in Manhattan. That is until one day when Katie adopts a giant, unkempt pup named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), upending his spoiled life and special relationship with his human. Desperate to be rid of this unwanted intruder, Max cracks a plan to lose Duke during their walk while Katie is at work. But when they both separate from Max's group of friends at the dog park and get picked up by a the fuzz heading for the pound, they find themselves face-to-face with an angry white bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart) and his band of abandoned rebel pets. After Snowball sabotages the truck, he rescues the pair with the caveat that they be new recruits in his battle against domestication and the human race. Meanwhile, Max's friends—particularly pup princess Gidget (Jenny Slate)—notice he's missing and go on a mission through the city to bring him home.

There's a reason this kind of content is human cat-nip. There's nothing that brings strangers closer together than talking about their beloved pets; or whether dogs are better than cats; or how bird people are weird... As a result, the movie leans real hard on the comedy pandering to that pet-owner instinct to cry out "That is so [insert pet name here]." And hey, I'm not judging, because I'm not immune. I did it, too, at least a dozen times. I own two cats and a Miniature Dachshund, and watching Buddy the Dachshund (Hannibal Burress) give himself a belly rub with a stand mixer left me bent over with the lolz. And don't even get me started on how bitchy and familiar Chloe the Fat Cat (Lake Bell) is.



But that's kind of the problem with the movie, too, if you want to identify it as a "problem." The comedy never really grows any legs, and the jokes are a blunt but purposeful flash-in-the-pan. One bit about dogs delivery puppy-dog eyes begging for food is over and you're on to the next bit about cats always landing on their feet. And so on and so forth. In the end, there's something very obvious about it all.

Duke is a problem, and he never really stops being one. Sure, he's the Buzz and Max is the Woody in this scenario, but unlike Toy Story, where their coming together leaves us elated that they did, by the end of Pets... we still kinda hope Duke will find another human. Oh, you didn't feel that way? Well maybe I'm a monster then! Despite the film working so hard to bring the two together through peril and strife, they remain as at odds as where they started. The hate and paranoia has simply diminished. Perhaps it's the absurdly unrealistic way that he is animated (no other animals in this world are as ridiculously exaggerated as Duke, except maybe dat viper up dere) or Stonestreet's 'blah' voice work, but he doesn't feel right in this story, regardless of the attempts to give him depth.

Inversely, aside from Louis C.K. proving he can literally do no wrong, Jenny Slate as Gidget is a pure delight, and she steals the film from the comedians surrounding her. Slate gives that fluffy nugget a voice reminiscent of Patty Mayonnaise, and we learn that Gidget is driven by a significantly more relatable motivation in her love for Max than any of the other supporting characters. Her fearlessness is both adorable and unexpected, and it offers some of the smarter comedic moments, particularly when she embarks on her adventure and makes friends with Tiberius the Hawk (Albert Brooks). That dynamic between the two of them has more going for it than most of the other triter moments with Duke or Snowball's 'funny at first but then you're over it' crime lord toughness.

While we're likely left wanting more, there is also a lot to love. I love my pets more than anything, and watching pets love their humans and humans love their pets is always going to get me. The opening sequence is worth the price of admission, as Taylor Swift's "Welcome to New York" rings through an opening montage that will turn you into a happy puddle. For most people, none of the rest is going to matter, because Max loves Katie and Katie loves Max. Anything else is just filler.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

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