Louis C.K.’s Animated Feature has no Bite
DIRECTED BY YARROW CHENEY & CHRIS RENAUD/2016
Ever since the second or third Pixar feature film, I’ve rested assured in my assessment that the secret of the animation studio’s success is in their wondrous telling of “the secret life of [fill in the blank]”. A Bug’s Life is the secret life of bugs. Finding Nemo is the secret life of fish. Cars, and even Cars II are the secret lives of your vehicles. And of course, Toy Story is the secret life of your childhood toys. All the while, the filmmakers at the studio have been savvy enough to never blatantly reveal this card.
Illumination Entertainment, the newer-fangled challenger to Pixar’s CGI family-friendly animation throne, seems to have also cracked the code. And if ever there was a move that immediately distinguishes the key difference between the two companies, it’s the obviousness at which they’ve exploited their knowledge: The title of their latest film is… (wait for it) The Secret Life of Pets. What Pixar has lovingly cultivated as a tried and true secret ingredient, Illumination is all too happy to immediately fly up the tallest, most prominent flagpole they can find.
But that’s not even the most flagrant way that Illumination has seen fit to cop Pixar with this movie. Surely it’s been long enough that no would recognize the exact plot, storyline and character arcs of 1995’s seminal Toy Story under a newly added coat of fur… right?? With full understanding that plot recaps are the “necessary evil” inherent in any film review, I now run the risk of boring you more-so than usual by recapping a plot that will no doubt echo as a little more than familiar…
Max is a kindly terrier with all the voice and an eighth of the cutting wit of comedian Louis C.K. He lives in a New York City apartment with his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper), a single career girl whom he knows he knows holds him dear. While Katie is gone all day, Max holds court with his array of animal pals. They speak fluent English to one another, even though to human ears it’s all barks, chirps, meows and whatnot. Max is secure in his place in Katie’s world, her most loyal companion and buddy.
But then one day, Katie brings home a bigger, better (?) second dog. Duke, voiced by Eric Stonestreet, is a moppy, affable pooch who of course Max immediately perceives as a threat to his supremacy. Max quickly resorts to lightweight schemes to intended to knock Duke down a few notches in their owner’s eyes: breaking things, trashing the place, making messes that Max would’ve never made. But oops, it all goes wrong, and both dogs find themselves locked out of the apartment, in the big bad world!
Max and Duke bicker, blame and eventually bond during their adventures on the streets of the Big Apple. Along the way, they fall in with a scary cadre of abandoned “misfit” pets, led by a white fluffy bunny voiced by Kevin Hart. As frightening as these streetwise strays appear, maybe, just maybe they’re not so bad.
Surely it’s been long enough that no would recognize the exact plot, storyline and character arcs of 1995’s seminal “Toy Story” under a newly added coat of fur… right??
Meanwhile, all the other pets from the apartment building decide to head out and search for Max and Duke. (Getting into Toy Story 2 territory here.) While out, they recruit yet more pets, including a ravenous bird of prey voiced by Albert Brooks (waitaminute, isn’t he also in a Pixar movie right now??), and a grumpy old dog, voiced by Dana Carvey (One guess which of his vintage SNL character voices he’s recycling here.)
Will Woody and Buzz – I mean Max and Duke! ever make it home? I won’t say due to my personal usual spoiler control policy. But I will say that its easy to lose sight of caring about that, what with all the supporting character overload going on. There are more different animals on screen running around in this movie than there are super heroes in the recent Captain America: Civil War. And every one of them is voiced by an established comedy talent. This results in a cast list that, to the informed grown-up viewer, is at once enticing and full of red flags. Because, when these animation studios set out to lure hotshot talent to voicing supporting characters in their feature comedies, the usual truckload of cash most likely isn’t quite enough. Celebrity egos being what they are, each of these actors must no doubt be assured that their character will have his/her special time in the sun, and that all the kids are going to just love ’em!
Inevitably, the result is a runaway casting train, overloaded with actors trying to out-wacky one another in two-minute bursts. Such. Is. The. Case. Here. The long list of edgy comedians who aren’t allowed to be edgy that have not yet been mentioned include Jenny Slate, Hannibal Buress, Lake Bell, Steve Coogan, Bobby Moynihan, and more. The cast list is all bark, with no bite. But, now they all have a film on their resume that they can safely show to any small children in their lives. The Secret Life of Pets is as safe as milk, and about as exciting.
Sure, the animation is fine, and the massively rendered version of New York City on display here is impressive. But frankly, between the film’s glaring innocuousness and its major creative plagiarism, they doggone well had better be. It’s just sad to see the once-promising Illumination Entertainment fall into these same traps that have so often snared DreamWorks Animation and Blue Sky, with extreme prejudice. Illumination’s 2010’s Despicable Me is a legitimately terrific film, full of spark, imagination, and memorable characters doing fun and interesting things.
But, Despicable Me also gave the world The Minions. These little yellow gibberish-spouting pills that were formerly so effective as marginalized gag-meisters haven’t just taken center stage in their franchise, they’ve taken over the identity of their entire studio. Before the feature proper, there’s a Minions short where they set out to earn some cash doing yard work. Some will give this a pass as cute, but for anyone versed in the sharper comedy of The Secret Life of Pets cast list, this rake-stepping humor won’t cut it. Then, a screaming minion has been added to the Illumination logo, which flickers for a second to display the hidden word within the word, IlluMINatION. To bookend the whole shameless affair, one of the pets wears a minion costume in a closing credits gag. If ever a studio has put all its rotting eggs in one basket, this one is it.
There’s nothing particularly scary or offensive for small children in The Secret Life of Pets, but there’s nothing worth their time either, even as indiscriminate as they can be. If you do find yourself going to the theater for these Pets, bring a pooper scooper.