Saturday, July 09, 2016
I had such high hopes for The Secret Life of Pets (despite the fact that the grammar nerd in me instantly hated that it wasn't called The Secret Lives of Pets).
As the owner of a black lab who freaks out every time I leave and return, I have often wondered what he does when I'm gone, and this film from directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney promised me some entertaining answers. Its trailers—filled with head-banging poodles and toilet-water-chugging bulldogs—showed promise. And to be fair, the opening act and the final scene of the movie were funny, clever and moving. If you're a pet owner or animal lover, you WILL well up at the end.
The problem is that almost everything in the middle was cringe-worthy or otherwise disappointing, and had absolutely nothing to do with what pets get up to behind closed doors.
The plot is basically Toy Story, except with animals. The main character Max (Lewis C.K.) is horrified and hurt when his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet) from the NYC pound. Max does everything he can to get Duke out of the picture, and then when his plan finally succeeds but puts both of them in danger, the two rivals have to band together to get back home safely. In the meantime, a ragtag group of other pets, led by the fluffy Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate), venture out into Manhattan to rescue their friends. (All of this is set to a surprisingly great soundtrack, by the way.)
I was enjoying everything until Max and Duke get lost in New York and run afoul of "the flushed pets"—a group of abandoned animals that live in the sewer. Led by the bent-on-revenge bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart, a great choice), these forgotten pets have one goal: to kill humans. You read that right. When Fluffy and his crew first meet Max and Duke, the two domesticated dogs lie and say that they offed their owner, and Fluffy wants details. He demands to know exactly HOW the dogs killed their owner. And then he vows to kill Max and Duke after they escape from the sewer. I could not believe what I was hearing. This is supposed to be a movie for kids! (It reminded me of why I despised Cars 2 so much—all the talk about shooting and killing.) How hard would it have been for writers Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio to have had the animals speak in more vague terms about the flushed pets wanting revenge? (Or to have just thought of another way for the story to go entirely.)
And don't think for a second that they were trying to make some bigger point about how animals aren't objects to be tossed out after the responsibility of having a pet gets old. They were doing no such thing. This film is not that deep.
So after Fluffy enters the picture, the story is no longer about what pets do when humans aren't around. The animals are chasing each other all over the city and none of it has anything to do with the original premise. During this disappointing middle section of the film, there were a few points where the directing and writing team could've at least paused the action for a moment and taken the opportunity to pull on our heartstrings a little. A scene where Duke visits his old home is a prime example. We learn something about Duke's old owner and then... nothing. We're left hanging. No closure. What were they thinking?!?
In addition to all of the talk about killing and death, one character does actually meet a violent end, Gidget beats up another animal, Max and Duke nearly die a few times over, and in general there's just a very icky undertone to most of the film. It's like a totally different team made The Secret Life of Pets' thoroughly enjoyable start and finish.
I will not be taking my 4.5 year old to see this one. Not because I think he would be scared by it or disturbed by it or even understand the parts I'm upset about. But rather because there are enough GOOD kids' movies out there that there's no reason to give money to one that took the lazy, easy way out.