Not all animation has to reach the lofty standards of Pixar, Walt Disney Animation, or Miyazaki. Since there will always be a generation of kids who have never seen a movie before, it stands to reason that there will always be a market for slapstick humor aimed directly at them. Illumination Entertainment — they of the Despicable Me movies, Hop, and now The Secret Life of Pets — seem to have that particular market cornered, and the company is seemingly content with churning out the kinds of movies whose highlights can best be described with a phrase like, "Well, at least I was sitting in air conditioning for an hour and a half."
The Secret Life of Pets
Directors: Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney
Starring: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate
The Secret Life of Pets' heightened version of New York City — with gorgeous, clean, shiny skyscrapers that pack the skyline and seem to stretch forever upward and into the distance — is the best thing about the film. Its premise (a riff on Toy Story in which we find out what pets, instead of toys, do when their owners aren't around) has lots of potential, but the script isn't remotely interested in doing anything new with it. Instead, it's a collection of scenes and ideas that have been explored dozens of times in other movies, overstuffed with forgettable side characters who have little (and sometimes nothing) to do as the manic, madcap madness of the story unfolds.
Louis C.K. plays Max, a spoiled Terrier who lives a perfect life with his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). As Max's friendly neighbor pets live out their mini-fantasies (blasting hardcore music, stuffing themselves with food from the fridge, etc) while their owners are out at work every day, Max just waits patiently at the door every day for Katie to come back. One day, she brings home a large dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet) from the pound, and the two animals instantly don't get along. They're both total jerks to each other, and by the time they both get left behind during a dog walking session because they've spent so much time scheming to get rid of each other, I found myself not rooting for either one of them. Things truly go off the rails after that as they encounter a dangerous underground group of rejected animals led by a fast-talking bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart), while separately Max's neighbors — including the puffy Pomeranian who loves him, Gidget (Jenny Slate) — team up to rescue them. Animals drive (and wreck) multiple cars and buses, there's a horrifying dream sequence involving eating singing sausages, and many more insane sequences along those lines. It's not nearly as funny as it should be, but other than that, it's probably exactly what you're expecting.
I don't drink the Kool-Aid that says Pixar and Disney are the only good animation players in town. I loved How to Train Your Dragon, and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is one of my all-time favorite animated films. But unlike The Secret Life of Pets, those movies are actually about something, and they have things like themes and ideas in them, aspects Pets doesn't even bother with. I don't need a movie (especially an animated movie aimed primarily at ten-year-olds) to make a grand statement about the meaning of life, but a simple thematic throughline goes a long way. Cloudy is about following dreams and embracing what you love; HTTYD deals with convincing family and friends to change their preconceived notions. Pets is about...working together? Learning to deal with a roommate? It doesn't give us much to grab onto in that department, and it seems as if what it's really about is simply giving kids something to watch that will hopefully shut them up for a little while. Not every animated movie needs to strive for greatness, but they should at least strive to be a little better than this.