Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

Oh, how the wailing rants of wannabe critics amuse me! You know what I'm referring to. Those petulant, pedantic, crybaby, YouTube marauders who confuse volume and passion for validity and reason (A.K.A. the crowd that ignited an Internet typhoon over the new Ghostbusters film). As much as I lambasted actions of this nature in my Force Awakens review, I surprisingly consider the backlash behind The Secret Life of Pets even more inexplicable. This film is widely being considered a rip-off of Toy Story. Yes, specifically the first one. Before I reveal and dissect the fallacies of this criticism, let me start off with the most eloquent summation of my stance I can muster: Fuck off and sit on it!

Let's begin with the plot. The film begins with a dog, Max, who has lived nothing but a blissful existence since he was adopted as a puppy by a young woman, Kate. One day, Kate returns home from work with Duke, a new dog she has chosen to adopt. Unfortunately, the two dogs seem to clash, each struggling to exert their own power. After a skirmish between them at a park, they find themselves lost, stripped of their collars. While trying to return to their comfortable home, they find themselves entangled with a group of vengeful rebel animals, spearheaded by an aggressive, bloodthirsty (figuratively, of course. Kid's film!) rabbit. Additionally, they have support from Max's friends, who set out to search for him and Duke, while encountering a lonely hawk and a crippled Basset hound.

 OK, so let's get down to business! This film is not blatant creative robbery. While admittedly, the conceit of a protagonist, who possesses many friends who revere him highly, struggling to adjust to having to share his existence with someone who makes him question his own standing, leading to a scuffle that separates them from their natural state of living, forcing them to bond on a quest to return to their regular lives...*exhale*...does share some similarities with the first Toy Story film. What these detractors are failing to recollect is that many crucial elements from that film (i.e. a sadistic antagonist who reconfigures his subjects, the friends staying behind, waiting patiently for the return of our two feuding heroes, the mere fact of the new addition being more popular and respected than the original) have no place in this film.

The infuriating facet of the controversy is that these nitpicky, provoking critics can't even distinguish the right film. Aspects from this film (i.e. the friends on a journey to rescue their friends, rejects warning homegrown, content characters about domestic life, an instance of a character being tragically parted from his original owner, the mere fact that all of this happens with their owners being none the wiser) are aspects that can be Toy Story 2! Even if their rip-off theory was sound and sensible, they focused on the wrong target. This must be the most incompetent quasi-mass hysteria I have ever witnessed against a movie.

Besides, it seems as if these nostalgia guardians fail to realize that virtually every film has remnants of other films. Why don't we penalize Precious because of its similarities to The Color Purple while we're at it? Hell, the basic conceit of having to compete for respect with a new addition in their life can be seen in several other films (Stuart Little and Garfield: The Movie instantly come to mind). Do you even have any awareness of The Seven Basic Plots? Polti's Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations? Tobias' 20 Master Plots? A simple two-minute Google session might ease the pain for you. If there is any overriding pain, mind you (refer to my statement about a quasi-mass hysteria). I understand repetition and banality in cinema and that there is a shred of predictability in almost every film ever constructed, but there's one key ingredient that this film happens to have, which assists in helping any film overcome the death grip of existing platitudes: life.

One of this film's strengths is its ability to craft vibrant, particular personalities for its characters and fuse them impeccably with their voice actors. While Max's characterization can occasionally be somewhat thin, I was impressed by his oft wry sensibilities, abandoning the sort-of simplistic vulnerability that usually limits this type of protagonist, perfectly complimenting Louis C.K.'s dry, quick-witted style. Eric Stonestreet's Duke is actually much more vulnerable, actually possessing an authentic motivation to compete and/or overshadow Max and Stonestreet exudes the precise level of warmth and sincerity needed for the role. 

The chilled-out Buddy and hyperactive Mel totally correlate with their respective voice actors (Hannibal Burress and Bobby Moynihan) and Jenny Slate, in the midst of her increasing security and aplomb as an actress, immerses herself in the excessive good nature and innocent courage of Gidget. Tiberus, the hawk, is gruff, but has a hint of hopeless disaffection that aligns quite well with his voice actor, Albert Brooks, and Dana Carvey's amiability, with a surprising touch of acerbity, is put to fine use as the elderly Basset hound, Pops.

The two standouts, in my eyes, are Chloe and Snowball. As a person who predominantly grew up with cats, Chloe's self-absorbed, cynical, albeit clumsy disposition is highly evocative and identifiable for me and Lake Bell, who always emits an aura of deadpan self-involvement, compliments it spectacularly. As for Snowball, he can be seen as a broad allegory for the Black Lives Matter movement, seeing how he is introduced in the same window of time when dogcatchers are referred to as the "po po," he demands his movement include individuals that will help, not hinder his cause, if you will, and he's voiced by an African-American actor (Hi, Kevin Hart). Between this and Zootopia, it affirms my notion that modern cartoon media is trying to be more progressive, subversive, and transcendent. Anyhow, his ferocious energy and flexible emotional range is pitched so that neither Hart's voicework nor the writing (credit to returning players Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul, and Ken Daurio) are emphasized overtly over the other. What we have is a pitch-perfect example of what can happen when you understand how to properly transfer a comedian's temperament and integrity to cinema.

These bright, colorful characters paired with the spry, energetic writing make a concoction that produces big laughs. Furthermore, there is a high quantity of life present in the animation. The character designs relentlessly pleasant and unique and the 3D is highly impressive. 3D has made me swerve and duck before, but this time, there were several occasions, mostly involving snakes, that made me back up in my seat. The animation also manages to make a character out of its location, New York City. The lighting, the colors, the multitude of buildings, and minute details, such as the autumn leaves, all make for an anomaly: a summer film that actually has more than enough in common with a fall cinematic release. The lush, jazzy score also does a lot to personify the city, thanks to the masterful, yet shockingly underrated, Alexandre Desplat. While he has earned a number of honorable accolades, I believe his name should cause a reaction with as much instinctive viscera for Williams, Zimmer, Giacchino, Elfman, etc.

As much as I contribute nothing but praise, it's not at the apex of animation. The first third is a little slow to start out, offering humorous jokes, but not a very strong sense of footing or direction and some jokes that don't resonate strongly. In addition, the pacing and effort thrown into the humor unfortunately stunts any impact and momentum in instances where the filmmakers try to pull off drama. Any dramatic attempts usually are too predictable and awkwardly handled. Also, as enjoyable as the 3D is, there are times where it is not fully in-focus, thus displaying a blurriness at times that can become distracting. Regardless, this film has an adequate amount of personality and flair that should, in my opinion, automatically disqualify this film as being the ravenous rip-off that some misguided inciters are trying to make it out to be. Either way, Secret Life of Pets, you got a friend in me.

RATING: Three out of four stars

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