Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Secret Life of Pets

Neutered Pets
" biscuit."

The creators of Despicable Me have come out with a new semi-original movie The Secret Life of Pets and top-loaded it with an entertaining trailer. But, as lovely a film as Despicable Me was, it didn't deserve (unless you count the box office) a sequel or the flood of seemingly endless Minion knock-offs that generate thoughts of minion-cide. Directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney know a money-train when they see one and when they hit the jackpot they appear to stay at the same table in the hopes of another jackpot rather than count the diminishing returns.

So, it's a relief of sorts to see them come up with a new concept and The Secret Life of Pets seems to fill the bill. It is one of the mysteries of life what your quadruped friend does when you're absent. I, myself, suspected that my last animal was day-trading on the computer, while the less imaginative of us merely suspects that it's peeing on something. I've had the opportunity to watch my dog on an internet-fed closed-circuit of the doggy daycare he went to, and his behavior was, in the company of strangers, typical. He would shun attention, turning his back on the caretakers, but inch closer to them as if to say "I'm here, ya know. You could pay attention to me if you wanted to, not that I really want that, of course." 

My dog was an aggressive breed. But, he turned around to be passive-aggressive.
Renaud and Cheney exploit our curiosity with this movie. They start with a basic recap of the trailer—various domesticated's doing what we might suspect they'd do given thumbs—parakeets geeking out with flight simulators, cats exploiting privileges, including kitchen privileges, animals messing with our stuff for reasons that they would find practical, but mostly wasting time while we slave away to keep them kibbled. The two directors mine this stuff for laffs, occasionally straining the point where the behaviors of dogs belie their appearance—a snooty poodle hammers away to death-metal while his patron is away. Okay.
The film focuses on one dog, Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), devoted to his master Katie (Elle Kemper) to the point where he spends working hours staring at the door, waiting for the sound of her keys. If one is looking for The Secret Life of Pets, Max is the least interesting prospect. Then, inexplicably, Katie comes home with Duke (voiced by Eric Stonestreet) a very large, overpowering dog who has boundary issues, much the same as Max. They spend a restless night battling over territory. Okay. Conflict. Got it.
The next day, the two conspire against each other creating a Terrible Mess in which they're both on the street and eventually having to negotiate with The Society of Flushed Pets—a loose association of amazingly non-carnivorous animals, who are against the very concept of domestication, a concept I find hard to believe because most groups with an agenda have a tendency to eat their own (we are in the middle of an election cycle).
There begins a story of Duke and Max having to put aside their differences against adversity, while the other animals, who normally are living a sedentary life while their masters are away, go against their natures to bond to try and rescue their pals.
Maybe I'm being too discriminating (I am, after all, more than 12 years old) but that's the template for just about every animal cartoon that's been released to the unsuspecting public in the last few years. If the "Despicable/Minion" series hadn't shown Renaud and Cheney to be great proponents of recycling, then "Finding Max and Duke" The Secret Life of Pets shows them to not be innovative even when supposedly striking new ground.
In the criticism game, you're supposed to talk about the thing as is, not what you would want it to be, but this one has me wishing that the story they put out wasn't where they could have taken this. I would like to have seen more of that "secret life of pets" idea as put forth in the trailer. I doubt one could sustain it for the ninety minutes it would take to flesh out a feature, but it would have been better than spending the length of this movie wondering "why isn't this better?" and "Pixar might have done something worthwhile here, given a little strategic thinking." As it is, The Secret Life of Pets probably should have stayed secret.

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