The Secret Life of Pets
Director: Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney / Screenplay: Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch / Editing: Ken Schretzmann
Cast: Louis C.K. / Eric Stonestreet / Kevin Hart / Jenny Slate / Ellie Kemper / Albert Brooks / Lake Bell / Dana Carvey / Hannibal Buress / Steve Coogan
It’s PooPoo with a Dash of Kaka..!
Toy Story (1995). Remember that? Pixar’s original stroke of genius, was to imagine what our toys got up to when we weren’t around. Fast-forward twenty years and what’s the best these guys can come up with?
The same thing, but with pets…
In an ideal world, when a studio finds themselves awash with as much cash as Illumination, thanks to an unexpectedly beloved IP (the Minions), I’d hope they look at their slate of upcoming projects and feel empowered to take a risk. To employ writers with vision, who themselves might not have been able to get anything off the ground, on account of the bean-counters lacking any, err, beans? It’s how the Minions got started, after all – when they out-grew their original home within the Despicable Me franchise.
But, no. That didn’t happen. Instead, both writers and studio opted to sit on their hands and copy the formula of an enduring, beloved classic. It starts promisingly enough, with a winning montage of scenes showing a variety of pets being left in various high-rise apartments (no houses here) as their humans go-out to work. The leading character, by dint of giving him a VO, is a sentimental Jack Russell called Max, who’s human is Ellie. He socialises with Gidget (a Pomeranian fur-ball, who carries a torch for him), Chloe (a greedy house-cat), Mel (an ass-wiping Pug) and Buddy (an agile Dachshund). The jokes are visually strong and most land with confidence; any lack of depth is forgivable, ahead of the expected Transformational Event.
That arrives around ten-minutes in, but is little more than another homage to Toy Story. Remember when Buzz Lightyear is first brought into Andy’s room? How all the toys are so dazzled by him, that they forget about Woody? Okay, hold that thought and now picture Duke, a large, shaggy Newfoundland stray brought to live with Ellie, and who proceeds to upset Max’s world.
Now you’ve got it. Same tensions. Same jockeying for position.
Sure enough, it’s not long before Max and Duke are separated from the gang and are off on their own road trip, in the company of Snowball – a psychopathic, fluffy-white rabbit, who once jumped from top-hats for a magician. O-kay. I’ve watched the film twice now. First time-round, Kevin Hart’s delivery was just about okay, but second time for this review? His vocal contribution is a one-note screeching diatribe that doesn’t fit the character: where’s the tonal range? Emotional colour? Even when he’s name-checking his late friend Ricky-the-Goose, Hart is surfing a wail.
Along with Snowball, a tattooed pig called, err, Tattoo and a mute lizard-thing, our mis-matched wanderers now enter the realm of the ‘Flushed Pets’: a kingdom of the sewers, populated by hungry bullfrogs who snatch bluebottles tethered by string and a collection of alligators that look suspiciously like they’ve been photocopied from a Disney sketchbook, circa 1973…
If it’s dark in-tone, it’s because we’re now in the Stygian ‘underworld’ of the city. A portal of transformation and self-realisation that will shepherd our dynamic doggie duo, into a new space and realisation. Just you wait and see. When we come back, they’ll have embarked on a whole new existence, courtesy of Snowball’s gang…
Meanwhile, Max & Duke’s friends – led by Gidget – decide to find them, albeit after some debate and a little persuasion by Tiberius (a kvetching Hawk voiced by Albert Brooks). In order to seek enlightenment, they begin their own journey together: to meet Pops, an ancient Bassett Hound, who’s immobile back legs are now cradled in a wheeled trolley… Okay, a dark allusion to one of life’s realities; but one swallow does not make a summer.
Max and Duke escape a painful initiation into Snowball’s gang. What? So they DON’T embark on a whole new existence? Well, not quite. Instead, the movie becomes an extended chase sequence, with the Flushed Pets chasing Max & Duke who are – mid-escape – realising they might be friends after all, while Max’s original friends are chasing after them…
The final rendezvous on the Brooklyn Bridge sees all parties come together for an underwhelming ‘trial by combat’ (though calling it a ‘trial’ or even ‘combat’ is pushing things), before Duke plunges to what looks like his doom. Max dives into the river below to save him, but fails, which leaves Snowball to save the day.
For the second time.
In a set-up we’d seen not forty minutes before, but in a similar van… Ugh.
And that’s it. No plot to speak of here. Just an over-caffeinated, over-saturated exploration of what friends might do for – and to – each other, irrespective of species, blah, blah. There’s nothing else. Actually, I lie. In a final act of disloyal redemption, we’ll see Snowball abandon his principles – and his friends – the moment a young girl picks him up and snuggles him, thus obliterating any credence afforded his character to that point. Yes, the film-makers are telling its young audience something about the fickle nature of friendship, but did they have to resort to something this crass?
At least when Pixar are cooking with gas, they produce films that could work as live-action cinema. Even when they’re average, they’re better than this. They don’t speak-down to their likely audience, but instead, ask them to keep-up, in their exploration of big ideas, in the assumption their audience will follow. Pets has no loftier ambitions than making us laugh and while that’s no bad thing, it’s just a shame there’s nothing deeper to come back for.
The studio can do better when it wants to. The Minions might not be to everyone’s taste, but they’re tapping a timeless wellspring of visual slapstick, that’s universal. Everyone loves a fart joke, don’t they? It’s baseline humour, that translates the world over. Pets on the other hand, gives us a bunch of sassy, ‘sophisticated’ urban pets onto which have been projected human qualities, before being asked to carry an empty promise. No wonder it struggles.
It might’ve been funnier had its setting been switched to a rural location, say a farm, but then having a bunch of self-aware creatures there, would’ve encroached upon Orwell’s territory and fallen even shorter. At least a forest of tower blocks lends verticality to the setting and alludes to the obvious privileged / underclass vibe. Then again, Pets’ trio of writers pulled their punches even here: Lady and the Tramp (1955), anyone?
Oh, and what’s with the trippy homage to Busby Berkeley in the sausage factory? Watching our two heroes luxuriate in the afterglow of a meat-feast, has nothing to do with either their journey or story arc. They were playing-nice anyway, through their shared adversity! Why did the writers feel the need to shoehorn-in this ridiculous sequence? Because, chances are they had to get them from there-to-here and had nothing to show for it: until they watched Carmen Miranda in The Gang’s All Here (1943) and thought: ‘Hang on’.
Such a waste of talent, resources and time. Yes, it made a stack of money – but did it by playing to the crowd and body-swerving any ambition.
Bitter? Not at all. Just another of my pet-peeves.
It’s like a club, but with bitin’ and scratchin’!