Friday, July 22, 2016

Chew Toy Story

Year: 2016
Director: Yarrow Cheney & Chris Renaud
Cast: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

I have a tenuous relationship with Illumination Entertainment. While I’m down to clown with some Minion mayhem from time to time, I’ve only truly liked one of their movies so far: Despicable Me. Its sequel would have joined the list were it not for the blatant racism and obsessive heteronormativity. And you couldn’t have paid me to go see Hop or The Lorax. I want to like this studio, I really do. I’m ready to see it thrive.

You see, there’s a sea change coming, and this will put Illumination on a path either to greatness or to ruin. We’re living in a post-Minions world. After the Despicable Me spinoff raked in over one billion dollars (that’s far from an exaggeration), these little yellow ragamuffins have become a bona fide cultural phenomenon. Illumination recognizes that they are sitting on what could be this generation’s Mickey Mouse, so they’re lassoing that bronco and seeing how far they can ride it. The Minions now inform the look and feel of the company’s entire output (including their studio logo, which highlights the “MIN  ION” in the company name), even appearing in a comic short preceding Illumination’s latest box office bulldozer, The Secret Life of Pets.

That’s the movie we’re here to talk about, and we shall. In one minute. The commitment to Minion style comedy and animation will make Illumination’s output a more coherent whole, which is definitely a good thing. But there’s an extremely high chance of them flying too close to the sun. What I’m seeing with Pets makes me extremely nervous. But only time will tell.

They’re already used up five of their nine lives, so they’ve got to be careful.

In The Secret Life of Pets, something in your home can secretly speak when you’re not looking! How novel! Those things in particular are pets, and our lead pet is Max (kid favorite Louis C. K.), a dog owned by Katie (Ellie Kemper). When Katie gets a second dog, the enormous mutt Duke (Eric Stonestreet), Max’s jealousy leads them into a fight while on a walk, which gets them captured by animal control. They embark on a long, arduous journey to get home, meeting a tribe of abandoned pets led by the sadistic bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart, who I’m pretty sure is contractually obligated to be in every movie ever made). Meanwhile, a rescue attempt is led by Gidget (Jenny Slate), a neighbor dog with a massive crush on Max.

Will our unlikely pair make it home, having discovered a newfound friendship along the way?!

What the f**k do YOU think?

The Secret Life of Pets relies entirely on one major human personality trait that I lack entirely: an affinity for the animal kingdom. If you’re what is colloquially known as a “dog person,” this movie will magnetically draw your attention and admiration. But it’s the Dane Cook of pet-based movies, observing animal behavior without finding anything to say about it. There could be a very interesting comedy here about how pets operate in a world that wasn’t built for them, but the screenplay seems content to relax in the “dogs sure do love to walk in circles before they lie down, don’t they?” register. This is a movie that required four distinct people to write it, and Lord knows what they did all day. It doesn’t require a Jane Goodall level of research to reach the conclusion that cats like to chase laser dots.

Then again, this movie is lazy in every way, shape, and form, including some ways, shapes, and forms that haven’t even been invented yet. Combining the premise of Toy Story with the plot of Homeward Bound and the characters of Flushed Away, this is a movie that could only have been marketed to children, because anyone over the age of six has already seen it a thousand times before. I understand that I am not in the major demographic for this film, and that’s fine. But if you’re looking for an animated animal movie with a lazy premise, why not go straight to the source and watch Finding Dory again? Don’t waste you or your child’s time with this unbecoming nonentity.

Come to think of it, does anybody with a kid actually read my blog, besides my parents? Hello out there!

I think I laughed twice at The Secret Life of Pets, which is honestly more than I expected, so kudos to them. Kevin Hart’s presence is such a massive roadblock to my personal sense of humor that I’m genuinely delighted I had any fun at all. 

This flick is all over the place, frantically darting down every avenue of comedy it can. The roster includes poop jokes, a pratfall interlude that slams the brakes on the plot so abruptly that you’re tossed from your seat, and deeply weird cribs  from classic films as varied as Grease, The Lost World, and freaking Some Like It Hot. So I was bound to like something in this schizophrenic fantasia of comedy stylings. Pets also carries out the Minions manifesto of being inexplicably violent for a kids’ movie, trotting out some incredibly unkind slapstick and even literally killing off a character in pursuit of a gag.

There’s a surprising amount of death coursing around the edges of this film, but it’s not treated in the gloopy tragic mien of Pixar. In fact, it’s barely acknowledged at all, because Pets ignores the arcs of nearly every major character in its feverish race toward the finish line. It’s such a cursory, tossed-off product trafficking in only the hoariest cof lichés that it’s vaguely insulting.

So… Welcome back, Illumination! Maybe stick to Minion movies. The Secret Life of Pets is exactly what happens when the sugar rush sophomoric humor of the Minions is undiluted by other tones, then stripped of the retro, stylistic sheen that has always surrounded them. It ain’t pretty, it ain’t memorable, it ain’t anything. I hope and pray that another Despicable Me is right around the corner, because the new age of Illumination is looking unpromisingly like the old age.

TL;DR: The Secret Life of Pets is a boring, lazy movie without much drive.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1054

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