THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS (Universal)
Dir. Chris Renaud, Script. Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio
Cast (voices): Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart
Plot: Max (C.K.)’s idyllic lifestyle is rudely interrupted by Duke (Stonestreet), leading to a wild goose chase after they are taken from their home.
We’ve all heard of John Lasseter – the Pixar Animation (and Disney Animation now) mastermind, the insane creative force behind Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-E, Cars (okay, forget I said that) and Up. Lasseter has been the undisputed king, the chieftain of anthropomorphic, digital family entertainment for two decades and counting now, and he’s done this without major challenge, bar DreamWorks at their peak. But now, rising from the shadows…there is another. His name is Chris Meledandri, and while you may not be familiar with that name just yet, he wants you to be. This is, after all, the man who made the Minions. His company, the relatively new but massively successful Illumination Entertainment, are now attempting to capitalise on the Minions goodwill with a Toy Story-esque caper, The Secret Life Of Pets, which succeeds for the most part as an 8 year old’s wonderland, complete with just enough substance to keep their parents awake.
First positive – it seems that Meledandri has taken pointers from last year’s solo Minions movie, which wasn’t terrible but was certainly mediocre, and far too kid-focused. Pets definitely has a bit more to it, and a lot of singular scenes were genuinely very solid, a couple of them I’ll even confess to getting a Pixar-trademarked emotional kick from them (although we didn’t quite reach “Take her to the moon for me” territory). But the storyline, as I’ve already hinted at, has a set-up ripped directly from Toy Story and, to some extent, Garfield, and its very messy in its execution. At best, it feels a little quirky, but its hopelessly predictable (one trailer and you’ll know it) and a lot of it makes very little narrative sense – Pets makes the awful mistake of relegating its animals to nothing more than plot facilitators. There’s a specific moment towards the end that is so bizarre, and feels so wrong regarding a character, that it had me squirming in my seat
However, I know what you’re thinking: ‘Pets is a kids film, James, nobody is going to care about characterisation and pacing and whatnot, it just has to look nice and be funny’. And if we’re judging it on that, then Pets excels. The look of this film is really very good – I don’t know whether it’s just me, but I always find Illumination’s movies to be the most vibrant-looking animations around, even better than anything the Mouse House can come up with. The environments are gorgeous, pastel-coloured shots to the retinas. The angles which director Chris Renaud chooses capture Pets‘ world in a way that makes it feel unique, majestic, full of life. Even better is the jazz-infused score from Alexandre Desplat, that feels like a bunch of musicians got together and played whatever they could find for hours upon hours, and that Desplat is merely the lucky man who got to cherry-pick the best bits. The whole film has this lovely, improvised feel to it, and you’ll find yourself wrapped up in Pets without even knowing it.
The voice acting has the same, mosh-pit kind of feel: The voice cast is a real melting pot of comedians, all going at it in their own way. I was stunned by the fact that I was most impressed by Kevin Hart, an actor who for the last two years I have known to be a wrong casting choice at the moment of their casting. As a stand-up, I won’t deny Hart is a funny guy, but he seems to believe the best approach to screen acting is to scream as if he is trying to rid the world of glass, and then the eardrums of the canine community once he’s done that. However, in the role of a small, slightly deranged rabbit revolutionary, Hart is literally perfect – you couldn’t design a role more in Hart’s ballpark if you asked him to play himself. Jenny Slate and Lake Bell are also stand-outs, but unfortunately the lead duo of Louis C.K and Eric Stonestreet feel a bit flat – C.K. is undeniably well-cast, and there’s definitely moments of humour between them, but their performances don’t feel as enthusiastic as the supporting cast.
Honestly, a lot of this film was so by-the-numbers that it completely washed over me. I won’t deny that some scenes were well done, but as a whole it’s not a narrative you want to hear yet again; it’s a bit like when your grandmother is telling a story you’ve already heard before in ridiculous detail, and you’re internally begging for either the Grim Reaper or the conclusion to hurry up. Pets drags a lot, despite it only being a 91 minute film, and while it’s opening is good, the film’s one-trick concept is exhausted almost immediately. There’s no denying that Pets isn’t a good kids film though – it pops like it should, it’s as fun as it should be, and the characters are memorable, if about as barren of texture as whipped cream. There’s also no denying that, in the Great Game that the fight for animated supremacy is, Illumination are the court-jester to Disney’s Iron Throne – their films don’t have what it takes to lead, but they’re closer than most to the king’s throat.
BEST WATCHED: Watch with the dog. Confuse the dog. Let him look at his digital brothers. Also, this movie will make you want a dog in your life.
Illumination aren’t done for 2016, with their latest movie Sing set to drop around Christmas, with a properly big-name cast including talents such as Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson and Taron Egerton. After that, Despicable Me 3 is in the works as we speak, and those omnipresent yellow banana-lovers will of course be returning – after all, I don’t see Universal letting you forget about their existence until the heat-death of creation. Kevin Hart meanwhile, a small man best watched in small doses, hasn’t got long to wait for his next film to hit cinemas – Central Intelligence is out on FRIDAY, where he teams up with Dwayne Johnson to remind us all that Twins is still the height of big-small partnerships and will never be beaten.