Friday, July 8, 2016

The Secret Life of Pets movie review.

Our pets. They're so sweet, so huggable, so... occasionally quite destructive. They brighten up our day, they're always there for us when we need to have a second to have fun, and they're loyal to the very end. But one must wonder, what on earth do they do while we're gone?

It's this very question that the minds at Illumination Entertainment answer in The Secret Life of Pets, a film that's been so hyped this summer that teasers for the film have been circulating since last summer. That said, I've never been very excited for it, given my very subpar feelings on Universal's flagship animation studio as a whole. I think the fact that this is their best film so far speaks volumes about the middling quality of their films thus far, but at least the film proves to be a fun and brisk, if not overly memorable diversion.

Louis C.K. voices Max, a Jack Russell Terrier who seems to have it all, living a humble and comfortable life in New York City with his gentle owner Katie (Ellie Kemper), and surrounded by good friends living in neighboring apartments. However, when Katie brings in a stray Newfoundland named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), Max's life is turned upside down, and after bitterness and jealousy set in, the two eventually find themselves lost in the city, and running across a fierce anti-human underground uprising of former pets, led by Kevin Hart's hostile white rabbit Snowball. As the two band together to make their way back home to Katie, a search party led by Max's Pomeranian neighbor Gidget (Jenny Slate) take to the streets and skyscrapers to find the missing runaways.

While the premise of pets performing crazy activities while their owners are away is hardly new ground for animation, the initial premise as it is does offer some promise for very fun entertainment value. That said, it's also an idea that can't exactly fill a nearly ninety minute feature film, so it's understandable that the sequences of pets meddling around in our houses is largely kept to the sides, showing particular prominence in the first ten minutes which features all of the previously seen teaser footage, and only occasionally does it ever get back to these quirky habits. Instead, what the film winds up becoming is a less fulfilled interpretation of Toy Story, copying plot points and character traits from Pixar's trilogy of films verbatim, meaning the already tried scripting and premise begins to feel more unoriginal and predictable.

Both one of the best and one of the worst qualities about the film is its fast pacing. Clocking in at just under ninety minutes, the film makes for a surprisingly brisk sit, but because the movie outright refuses to just stop and take a breath, it makes for a very flat and rushed experience when it comes to characterization. When a film is already borrowing heavily from a much more successful film like Toy Story, it makes the characters feel all the less engaging when there's very little time dedicated to defining or fleshing them out, or giving them interesting personalities. It's especially felt by how badly they want to ape Pixar's emotional triggers, as character bonds and more emotional revelations feel cheap, empty, and unearned when we've gotten such little development in the meantime, and especially when the film decides to sporadically toss them to the sides and never address them again in a hurry to get to the next slapstick gag and action beat.

But at the same time, it's also a welcome benefit to the film, as despite the movie being quite thin on paper, I'd easily take a movie like this over any with the same surface value fun, only twice the length (Transformers 4, anyone?). But let's give credit where it's due, because the film is not entirely empty like I'm making it out to be. Because the actual narrative doesn't trigger much engaging depth, the movie has to rely on its comedic elements to pull it through, and while the film may be a bit too reliant on slapstick, when it comes to the movie's general sense of humor, it is very humorous, ranging from dark comedy and funny one-liners, to pure absurdity and charming observational gags. Much of the reason that these jokes work are owed to the cast members on display, and at the same time, they also do well to make their depth-lacking animated counterparts entertaining. Louis C.K. and Eric Stonestreet may be no Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, but they two do make for a charming and fittingly deadpan double act. Jenny Slate has the biggest laughs out of the film's numerous supporting players, adorably and passionately lighting the screen when letting her secret crush for Max out, and using hyperactivity to her advantage to make even a cute ad fuzzy Pomeranian feel positively psychotic. But the real scene stealer is Kevin Hart's Snowball, as the character's deranged intentions and sinister goofiness lead to the film's most larger than life comedic fits and tangents, especially thanks to the fact that Hart's rapid-fire voice and thought process feels perfectly suited to animation in this vein.

And to be fair to Illumination, due credit is also owed their way, as they've previously shown great promise in the realm of cartoonish animation, and this is easily their best showcase of their skill yet. Each of the characters may be flat on paper, but the design and conceptual work show off a great deal of unique and custom fitted detail, and each brandishing their own unique style of slapstick and sight gags. For as chaotic as the film can be, the technical polish of the animation alone is enjoyable to see, with highlights including the many distinct and outlandish animals within Snowball's underground legion of strays. I saw the movie in IMAX 3D as well, and the usage of it is actually very clever and fantastic, although it's not for the squeamish as chunks of the movie take place at vertigo-inducing heights, and features close-ups of of chill inducing creatures like vipers. The film also allows Alexandre Desplat to embrace his inner George Gershwin and Looney Tunes, giving the film a snazzy jazz and blues-based personality, with some of the most utterly addicting compositions in his career.

The Secret Life of Pets will not turn Illumination into the Pixar-level studio that they clearly want to be, but for a flat and undemanding, yet brisk and enjoyable diversion, it does exactly what it sets out to do with satisfying results. I only wish that the film had been more willing to stop and take a breather and provide more engagement with its characters, but the film at least compensates for these glaring issues with some hilarious moments peppered throughout, and thankfully the quick-pace ensures that I was never bored watching the movie.

Illumination will be back in December with their follow-up feature Sing, which I'm still not all too excited to see, but after The Secret Life of Pets, my hopes are at least higher than they were before...

*** / *****

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