The Secret Life of Pets

Do you have a dog? Is there a cat sitting in your lap right now? Have you ever made bubble noises to a fish? If your answer to any of these questions is yes, than you will enjoy this film that speculates on how the other side of people pet relationships might feel about the connection. Ultimately, this movie is more for kids than I thought it would originally be, but it does pick out several of the things that we animal lovers believe about our friends and uses those to make us smile, laugh and worry.

I’m going to start with a cautious comparison here. The pets featured in this movie are much like the Toys featured in the Toy Story films. There is a major focus on how the humans relate to the subject of the film, and then there is a plot element about how the subject relates to other similar characters. Finally, there is a plot concerning the separation of the subject from it’s human owner. Those are the basics of the story in the films I mentioned. The Toy Story films though, manage to build more heart and drama into their telling of the tale. Illumination Studio has created a nice design, and built in a number of gags to entertain us, but they miss the elusive spark that manages to make the Pixar films work so memorably [ at least most of the time].  This is a solid entertainment for certain, but it is not a classic that will be treasured by audiences down through the years.

We pet owners who have given voice to our furry and feathered and scaled pals over the years, both inside our heads and out loud, will have an easy time relating to this movie. Anthropomorphic conversations and interpretations of animal behavior are one of the delights in pet ownership. We get to project our own desires for the relationship onto the pet and there is basically no way we can be wrong. When an outcome is not as we predicted or wanted, we will come up with an internalized excuse and then put it in the mouth of our buddies. If that sounds like you, this movie will have a lot going for it. The main problem is that the humans disappear after the opening and only the animals remain. Instead of a thoughtful exploration of the connection that humans and pets make with one another, as last years Inside/Out did with families and our own feelings, we get an extended Road Runner cartoon. The plot is funny and manic and very entertaining, but it leaves all the nuance on the table.

Max is the star of the movie. He is a terrier voiced by Louie C.K., for the most part without any snark. When Duke, a oversized shaggy stray is interjected into his life, Max changes his demeanor in some ways and it looks like there will be an interesting story about the differences between animal and human nature to follow. What happens instead is that Max and Duke get thrown together in a buddy road comedy with a variety of complications tossed in. Both Max and Duke, voiced by Eric Stonestreet from Modern Family, seem like they are amiable dogs that have to resolve some differences. Those differences become mostly irrelevant when they are both pursued by animal and human antagonists, at which point, their behavior is basically interchangeable.

Kevin Hart provides the voice for a demented bunny and this is his third movie role this year and ninth in the last three years. The danger of over-exposure here is high, but since it is an animated character and the antics never have any sense of reality to them, his over the top manner is not really a problem for the movie. Albert Brooks is back in an animated film that is competing with his other animated film, “Finding Dory” this weekend. While not as egregious as last year’s “Minions“,  this movie does make repeated use of music cues from other films for the sake of getting the audience to connect emotionally with the story, rather than building a solid plot line. The one spot where it works effectively though, is in the sausage dream that the two main characters share, a better use of “We Go Together” from “Grease” cannot be imagined.

If you enjoy kids movies on their own, this is a peach of a film. If you are expecting something deeper, you may be disappointed but you will still be entertained. Don’t let the fact that there is a “Minions” cartoon in front of this discourage you. “The Secret Life of Pets” may not rise to the level of “Despicable Me” but it sure as heck does not sink to the banality of that last film with the banana colored characters in overalls. If you have kids, definitely take them, if you are an adult, you can put this one off for a bit and not feel like you have been denied an important film, just like you skipped a candy bar that you would enjoy more at a later time.

Finding Dory

“Finding Dory” is the seventeenth Pixar/Disney film. A couple of weeks ago,  while we sitting at home one night, we decided to play a game and rank the films in three groups. We had a ranking of the James Bond films and one for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we also ranked all the Pixar films. The three of us participating had very similar rankings for the most part, but we averaged them together to come up with a list that represented our families opinion of the films. The only one we had not seen is “The Good Dinosaur”, and we still had it ranked higher than “Cars 2“.  I feel pretty save with that because Pixar has only disappointed us the one time, and although “the Good Dinosaur” was not the usual box office bonanza, I did not read any disparaging reviews on line like I’d seen for the Mater Movie.  “Finding Nemo” ranked number ten on our list of films, not because it is inadequate but because of films like “Wall-e”, “Ratatouille” and “The Toy Story Trilogy”.

That said, there was reasonable hope but also a certain trepidation about another sequel. “Monster’s University” did not besmirch the reputation of it’s predecessor,  but it was for the most part well made but unnecessary. The same can be said for today’s film. It is beautiful to look at, there are charming characters and the story expands the universe we saw in the original in some inventive ways, it just is not as compelling, coming after the first film. The plot is basically the same as “Nemo” but with some role reversals and retrograde backstory. “Dory” it turns out is not a mature fish per se, but more like an adolescent. This feels like a slight alteration of the tone established in the first film and might cause me to have to look at Nemo from a new perspective. I don’t think that was the intention of the film makers her.


The strongest element in the movie was choosing to set a majority of the action in a Marine Aquarium, [More like Monterey Bay than Sea World]. The movement of the action to this location results in a greater variation in the characters and plot line than we start out with. There are some clever visualizations of the layout of the Aquarium and the creatures that reside there. “Dory” was clearly the breakout character in the original, if there is a third film in this series it will certainly be “Finding Hank”. He is the octopus who engages with Dory at the Aquarium and  his character design and the gags they provide for him are the highlights of the film. Ed O’Neill provides the voice and his sonorous dead pan is a good match for the characters somewhat morose view of the world. As an isolate he is matched with Dory, who has such a high need for affiliation that it is sometimes a little irritating. I don’t know if he will be an appealing plush toy, but he certainly worked as a comedic character in today’s film.

Marlin and Nemo are back as part of Dory’s circle of friends and they are the ones who are trying to find Dory. Albert Brooks neurotic Dad is still effective but we know he has grown as a character in the first film so it comes as no surprise that he willingly pursues this quest in spite of his misgivings. Nemo is a spark plug igniting his dad to action but also helping him figure out their next moves. It was an interesting change in their dynamic and it worked for the most part. Dory herself  is a character that must change in both films to avoid being a complete irritation, but those changes are more clearly explained and processed in this story. Sometimes the writers use some shortcuts to get us to the next point, and those usually involve a sudden increase in Dory’s ability to recall certain details. I can say that little Dory, appearing in the opening sections and in occasional flashbacks, may be the cutest thing in a Pixar film since “Boo”. She is definitely going to be on the shopping lists for the Christmas toys this year. The “Mine”, “Mine” caterwaul of seagulls is replaced by a new catch word delivered by characters that are a lot more fun, and they steal several parts of the movie from the main characters. Otter cuddling will be a thing after kids see this movie, so there is another chance for some toy sales.

I don’t mean to imply that the film is just a cash grab, using familiar characters to recharge toy product marketing. There are some good themes about family and loyalty that are presented in the movie. We have to learn to trust what works and we need to question what we are sometimes settling for. Those are good points but they are not the main reasons the movie works. This film is a solid family entertainment, with a couple of surprises but mostly a comforting familiarity that kids and parents seem to crave. Do I want new and creative characters and stories? Of course I do. That doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally want the comfort of recurring characters. As long as it is a cranky septuapus with Ed O’Neills voice and not Larry the Cable Guys naive and somewhat dim Mater.