Tuesday 4 October 2016

The Secret Life Of Pets (2016) - Movie Review

The plot: Dogs Max (Louis C.K.) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet) are forced to live together when Max’s owner brings Duke in to live with them. Their fighting eventually leads to them both being stuck on the street away from home. Forced to work together to get home before their owner does, Max and Duke make their way through the streets of New York while their friends try to rescue them and the Flushed Pets, a group of abandoned pets living in the sewers, try to kill them.

The cast list is filled with some of the biggest names in comedic television of today, and even a couple from way back when. Louis C.K. doesn’t have the greatest history when it comes to films, and he doesn’t even have a history when it comes to family-friendly films, but he gives Max an excitable tone without getting too obnoxious/draining on patience. Stonestreet is just a big cuddly teddy bear in vocal form, which is a good fit for the character. Jenny Slate follows up Zootopia in another surprisingly intense role and manages to work with the crush-from-afar emotional drive. Steve Coogan is very funny as an alley cat, Lake Bell is nicely sardonic as an indoor cat, Albert Brooks gives a nice dignified air to his kind of dark character and Dana Carvey shows up for his first non-Happy Madison feature film in 20 years and makes for a nice vocal presence as the wisened Pops. Probably helps that he’s given one of the funniest vocal reactions of the film to work with.

And then there’s Kevin Hart… you can probably tell why I saved him for last. I know that he’s best recognised for his high-pitched energetic jabbering on screen, but when you give him the role of a hyper-active rabbit where he doesn’t have to be physical, he goes even further down that road that I so dearly wish he would leave already. If you like his style, that’s fine; I can’t bloody stand it, though, and his performance here feels like a concentration of all his other bits of annoyance combined.

Illumination’s place in the animated film circuit is a tad underrepresented. I mean, sure, Minions are bloody everywhere still but they aren’t a household name like Pixar or Dreamworks. Then again, they’re at least capable of doing as well as their peers in the visual stakes… usually. This film is actually kind of weird to define in that regard, mainly because the quality control isn’t exactly stable throughout. The animation for the pets is fine, and they immediately win points for being able to show presentable wet hair/fur on screen, but the backgrounds are a bit lacking. Given the New York backdrop, you could almost forgive them for making it look as kind of drab and ordinary as they do, but locales have personality as well. Even for a place as cinematically overexposed as the Big Apple, there are ways to make it look and feel like a thriving city, almost like a character in and of itself. This isn’t one of them, where the scenery meant to serve as a non-plain background for the actors and nothing else. No real time for blink-and-you’ll-miss-them visual gags either, with that in mind; nothing to read into, which will always make me disappoint.

Then again, this film isn’t really thinking three-dimensionally. And no, I’m not saying that as a bad thing. Going by their previous work with the Despicable Me franchise, Illumination has a real fascination with fast-paced slapstick and visual comedy; kind of like the old days of Tex Avery. However, rather than going with Hotel Transylvania route, the filmmakers instead go with a classic flat depiction of the same sort of routines. The framing of a lot of the shots is similar to that of those old Looney Tunes shorts, where the backgrounds change far less because the ‘camera’ is usually fixated at a single shot. The style of humour may be a bit more modern, not to mention being based around a lot more on realistic thoughts and movements of animals, but the approach to it is still the same.

Now, the film’s humour ends up coming from a lot of different places: We have bodily function jokes as was shown in the trailer (It’s funny because it’s poop, and the joke is), we have pratfalls and cartoonish shenanigans like Chloe stumbling across the dinner table, we have observational humour with how the animals themselves are characterized and we even get a bit of “what the hell am I watching?” random humour with probably the closest we’ll ever get to a G-rated version of Sausage Party. A lot of the time, the jokes land with mild amusement but at least they land a lot more consistent than most comedies I’ve seen this year. Occasionally, you get a dud and sometimes, it just gets weird. Like, that thing where cats show you their butts as they walk away is shown here… in full detail. Apparently, feline anus texture is now a thing.

But, at the end of the day, this plays into Illumination’s major part in the circuit. Where Disney/Pixar is known for its legacy and boundary-pushing and Dreamworks is known as the renegade answer to that legacy, Illumination’s M.O. appears to be light and harmless entertainment. Ultimately, between its Avery antics and story ripped right out of Toy Story et al., this is just a nice and friendly diversion. There’s nothing wrong with that. As much as my previous writing may say otherwise, not every film has to be this earth-shattering epic about the human condition. Emotional and intellectual stimulation is good, and in some cases great, but much like massively cheery and sugary films, too much depth can get tiresome as well. For an IRL example of this, I went and saw Kubo & The Two Strings and the Nick Cave documentary on the exact same day. Two of the most emotionally intense films of the year and I pretty much saw them back-to-back; exhausting is an understatement.

I understand the need for light entertainment. I just make it a point of mocking it a lot here because so many companies just aren’t good at it. It either tries to have both ways and be sparkling and still at the same time to ill effect, or the fact that the events in the film are being treated with the same tone as the comedy can make them rather distasteful.

Here, aside from a certain questionable quip about killing humans with a blender, there’s nothing like either of those examples. It knows precisely what it is, a fluffy gag film, and doesn’t try to make any ridiculously big gestures to prove its worth. The events in the film can be a little melancholy (or is that Melon-Collie? You’d seriously be surprised at how few animal puns there are in this film) but it never wavers from the light and pleasant atmosphere it starts with. Honestly, I kind of admire that.

All in all, a very pleasant and frankly undemanding sit with good animation and good voice acting. Usually, a film being this inoffensive would translate to just being boring, but this is way too fun for that to be the case. It’s funny, it’s well-framed, the music has a very French lounge music vibe to it; it’s good to watch if you want something you don’t have to think too hard about. Hey, given the kiddie film crap I’ve seen since starting this blog, you could do a lot worse than a buddy comedy that can be played in the background without much hassle.

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