The Secret Life of Pets: Jumbled Plot and Lots of Slapstick26th July 2016
I enjoy kids’ movies: they have the freedom to create fantastic worlds which appeal to both adults and children. However, when movies fail to move us, there’s a tendency to excuse it: because it’s ‘for children,’ we shouldn’t expect too much of it. This is something I’ve seen being thrown around in reviews of Pets, despite the film being full of references to movies children will not have watched – I myself missed most of them. This dismissal also underestimates children’s ability to follow a plot, or character development, or anything other than slapstick and poop jokes.
But media can be entertaining without being what we might call “good”, and the kids in the audience seemed to enjoy the Minions short that opened this film, while I sat disturbed in my seat as minions blew themselves up, got bees nests stuck on their head and accidentally inhaled dog poop. I had forgotten just how violent a lot of children’s comedy is. Ultimately The Secret Life of Pets seems to be aiming for a hybrid of a Pixar and a Looney Tunes movie but instead ends up with a series of loosely-connected sketches with little pay-off.
It reads like a tick list: slapstick, villain, emotional backstory, romance, all added without any regard for making a coherent whole.
I went into this movie having no idea what to expect. I’d seen the persistent advertising in joint promotions with Sky Broadband and McDonalds, however, they had told me little about the plot – but animals are cute and it was this or a horror movie (I don’t do horror movies). The film opened with Taylor Swift’s ‘Welcome to New York’ as we panned across an animated version of the city. This generic opening gave way to a more promising sequence of various pets being left alone by their owners and doing everything they shouldn’t, while Max the dog – our protagonist – narrated life with his owner Katie who he described as a soulmate. The conflict comes in when Katie brings home a new dog, a stray called Duke – and if this is ‘Toy Story with pets,’ then Duke is essentially the Buzz to Max’s Woody; Max takes an immediate disliking to his new ‘roommate’ and unfortunately the movie goes downhill from there.
When Duke and Max get away from their dog walker and are captured by Animal Control, what should be a heart-warming-but-funny adventure of sibling rivalry turned to affection instead feels like jigsaw pieces from several different puzzles forced together. It reads like a tick list: slapstick, villain, emotional backstory, romance, all added without any regard for making a coherent whole. I found myself constantly asking ‘Why is this happening? What does this add?’ at elements which could have been fixed with just a bit of foreshadowing, interweaving and links to tie the whole thing together.
One jarring section was Duke’s backstory. With little set-up, he mentions missing his old owner, after which they immediately stumble across his old home, he finds out what happened and then gets upset and angry. Animal Control appears once more, moving the characters onto the next section of the story, and it’s never mentioned again: no later heart-to-heart for the new brothers to bond over, nothing. Most forced of all was the romance between Max and Gidget, his Pomeranian neighbour with a cliché unreciprocated crush. While her affections have been constant throughout the movie, he’s never mentioned her once and they’ve shared only moments of screen time. Minutes before the end of the movie, he suddenly develops feelings for her because she can brutally beat up animals in an extended fight scene, so he asks her on a date. I cringed.
Those animals she beats up are an underground group called the Flushed Pets. Abandoned by their owners and deciding that being a pet is a form of slavery to the man, they shout ‘Revolution forever, domestication never!’ At the movie’s end though, their leader Snowball the rabbit is adopted by a little girl who spots him. All his anger and revolutionary spirit instantly melts and he (and the movie) forgets all about his cause – which was never to be taken seriously anyway, leaving the less cute abandoned pets to continue living in the sewers. All the housed pets are left happy and everything’s supposed to be fine because the other Flushed Pets come to a party the pets are secretly throwing. For an analysis of this uncomfortable joke which seems to be about the Black Power movement, see Jason Johnson’s piece at The Root.
Pets generates a few laughs with the slapstick and animal-related jokes, but is only passable if you’re looking for light entertainment and willing to ignore the implications of some of the plot’s features. It lacks the depth, and coherence, of the best recent children’s movies and certainly won’t be remembered in years to come. Having said that, it’s probably not the worst movie you could watch, if there’s nothing else on.