The Secret Life of Pets jumped out at me as soon as I saw the first trailer. That must have been six months ago, but it left an impression and I never forgot about it. It was so unique and flat-out funny that I knew I couldn’t miss it. Disney and Pixar have completely dominated animation for a while, now (certainly in terms of quality, even if others have held their own in terms of box office), so it was rare for me to be so determined to catch an animated film that isn’t by either of those studios. But, here we are.
The Secret Life of Pets is a Universal film, produced by their animation studio, Illumination. Illumination is the studio responsible for the Despicable Me series, which I am not particularly fond of (there’s a Minions short before this film which is predictably juvenile and lazy). I was hoping for something significantly better than those films. And what I got was something . . . moderately better.
The humor, which was the main attraction for me, works about half of the time. Which, honestly, isn’t bad. There is a fair amount of character-based humor executed through dialogue that, while not often laugh-out-loud funny, is amusing for the majority of the time. Then, there’s the slapstick humor. There’s nothing wrong with slapstick, by definition. But slapstick is tricky because it’s been done so well for so long by so many. It’s tough to do unpredictable and fresh slapstick. And the slapstick in The Secret Life of Pets couldn’t have been more transparent if it had desired to be. But, it will work for the kids, so that doesn’t bother me, too much.
What does bother me is that the slapstick isn’t the only element of the film that’s borrowed from other sources. In fact, I stopped counting the number of times I thought to myself, “That’s just like it was taken from [enter previous film here].” And it’s easy to say, Who cares? It’s a kids’ movie!” Sorry, folks; that doesn’t fly. Firstly, no given target audience dictates the desertion of artistic integrity. Secondly, adults have to take kids to this film. That’s why the goal should be to make a family film, not a kids’ film. And, disappointingly, this very much ends up being a kids’ film.
When I say that the movie borrows from other sources, I mean that it does so liberally and with little effort to hide it. The primary narrative itself is essentially just a copy of another, iconic, groundbreaking animated film that came before it. I won’t say which one, here, because that would actually be spoiling almost every single one of the important story points. But, once you see it, and you realize which film I’m referring to, then you’ll know what’s to come for the remainder of the film, as far as the story is concerned. But other animated films aren’t the only source from which Pets lifts. There’s even a scene taken almost directly from Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park. I’m not sure if I was more surprised that the film pilfers from a Jurassic Park film or at their choice of which Jurassic Park film.
That original trailer for The Secret Life of Pets that originally hooked me and got me into the theater is pretty much the extent of the originality in the film. Not entirely, because, as I mentioned, there are still some good lines and some fun dialogue mixed in. And, admittedly, Kelly Slate’s Gidget and Lake Bell’s Chloe are both pretty awesome characters. So, the film isn’t a total loss. Nor is it poorly made. But, if you’re a film fan in any real way, you’ll swear you’ve seen 70% of it before.
In addition to all of this, just like the Despicable Me films, there is a contrived, forced attempt at adding depth to the film and its characters that fails because more is told than is shown. Rather than allowing the animators do their job with facial expressions and the voice actors to add layers to their performances, the script just tosses in a handful of lines, here and there, to tell the audience what they should be getting out of the film. Remember Toy Story 3? Remember when Woody, Buzz, and the gang were facing their own deaths, about to be incinerated with seemingly no escape? Nobody speaks. Nobody says, “Well, this is it. We’ve been such great friends and now we’re all going to die and it’s going to be over, forever. Friendship is important! We’ve always been there for each other and now we’re here for each other at the end, too.” Nobody says that. They all just look at each other with a fearful resignation and then hold hands. It’s a touching, meaningful, powerful moment uncommon in animation. The film takes full advantage of the medium and shows the audience what’s happening and then trusts that audience, as well as the animators, to connect the dots. That’s filmmaking. That’s depth. That’s not Universal/Illumination’s approach.
So much for Disney and Pixar having real creative competition. Both of those studios are under the same umbrella and yet they each have to rely on the other to push them to new levels of quality. While The Secret Life of Pets is an improvement for Universal, Illumination makes the clear statement that they are the followers in the animated film arena, trudging behind Disney and Pixar like one is the Pied Piper and the other is St. Patrick. Kids will like it. Less-discerning adults will like it. But, me? I’ll look ahead to Disney’s Moana. I would imagine Universal/Illumination will, too. After all, they’ll need some ideas for another of their own future projects.
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