Nothing in the rulebook says dog movies can’t be boring.
After watching The Secret Life of Pets, I understood why the squishy yellow trash-can Minions don’t speak. Unlike the silent shorts used by other animators to convey simple, elegant meaning or slapstick, they remain mute because they’re cute empty husks – Disneyland mascots without the living person inside. They’re a brand of comedy – and make no mistake, these things are a better brand than Nike – that has built an entire company, which means its influence must be noted when judging its descendants. Illumination Entertainment is a company built on the backs of Minions and it knows its audience. No reason to alter course now.
Rather than goofy, gibbering henchmen, this time we turn to our furry friends. Lifting its plot and premise almost entirely from Pixar’s Toy Story, the film posits that as soon as the owners walk out that door, the world of animals opens up into a society much like ours. Everyone can talk to one another (except one small bird, for some reason), use our furniture in interesting ways to easily escape their confines and visit each other, and party as hard as they like. They live a weird life semi-aware of their situation and of human society. Then, when the humans return, it’s back to acting as pet-like as possible. Some animals seem to know how to drive a car, break out of prison, follow soap operas, and understand the housing market. Others, like our protagonist Max, don’t know what a spoon is.
Everything is peachy for Max (the terribly miscast Louis CK, bored and flat) and his owner until she adopts a new dog from the pound. His name is Duke, he is voiced by Eric Stonestreet, and he is big. He’s Buzz Lightyear, the interloper, stripped of all personality. Somehow more simple than cowboys and spacemen, “little dog” and “big dog” have been used not only as identifiers but as definitions of character. The two briefly jockey for position until they become separated from their owner and their friends, lost in the city. To get back, one might assume they must work together and learn to like one another. Maybe the writers missed that part of Toy Story. They do, however, run into some bad pets who harbor a great hatred for humans, and yes, they’re as grungy as the evil toys Sid cobbled together, but nowhere near as tragic.
So is there a point besides replacing the heart of Pixar’s gem with fur? Besides sucking the Dickens from Billy Joel’s Oliver & Company? Its side characters are more fleshed out than its leads by having one joke apiece. A dachshund has a long weird body and a pug is an annoying spaz. Max and Duke are as bland as bland can be, their aimless wandering further deadened by their sleepy vocal performances. Surrounded by chaos, we focus on the two characters more derivative than the plot. When there’s less substance than the five-minute Feast in an hour and a half of ostensibly cute animal animation, it can’t help but feel intentional. Perhaps Illumination wants to deliver on the promise of “turning off your brain” and is embracing its newfound role as a producer of one-time babysitting material (and a slew of profitable tie-ins and spin-offs). Vapidity is a hard sell for a company to double down on, especially when The Secret Life of Pets’ comedy is so dull.
The action sequences are the same tired sewer and girder adventures that have plagued physical comedians for decades, as characters slide while commenting on the stink, glide while commenting on the height, and chide each other all the while. There are few jokes that aren’t mere moments of disjunction. A harmless furball is a hardened tough guy, a vicious-looking beast turns out sweet, an old one becomes flirtatious. Leaning hard into the written equivalent of peekaboo, this is the kind of movie that you know spent hours considering how to fit a rapping granny into the mix.
This brings me again to the question of why. Why did they make this soulless, humorless, waste of some talented animators? They’ve created a genuinely pleasing New York to look at, with stunning water and a cramped but loving architectural style. There’s just nothing living in it besides a hacky high school talent show stand-up routine. That the Minions became synonymous with embarrassing quotes your aunt shares on her Facebook wall feels fitting for The Secret Life of Pets. Hanging the shreds of their blown-out whoopee cushion on a story originally built for a smarter, more emotional kind of humor leaves us with a disjointed bore that’s thankfully not too bright or loud to sleep through.
Related Topics: Animation