By Preston Wilder
What was the most underrated film of 2015? It’s tempting to cite some festival-friendly obscurity – Tikkun, the black-and-white Israeli drama, is indeed unappreciated – but I’ll go with a more surprising choice, namely Minions. Admittedly, the spin-off with the fire-hydrant-shaped yellow flunkeys was the sixth-top-grossing film of the year – but most critics seemed to hate it, calling it puerile, and most of the parents I’ve spoken to have also been scathing. I suspect those parents are reviewing their kids’ Minions obsessions (which are obviously terrifying) instead of the film itself, which is often hilarious – and the company behind Minions, Illumination Entertainment, does it again with The Secret Life of Pets, a talking-animal cartoon played as clever New York comedy.
The basic hook is as old as Toy Story; our pets, like our toys, lead their own lives the moment our backs are turned – but the various animals (ensconced, like their owners, in neighbouring flats) have mixed feelings about this enforced separation. Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), a rather earnest terrier, is heartbroken on a daily basis from the moment Katie, his owner, goes to work in the morning to the joyful reunion when she returns. Chloe, the neighbour cat, couldn’t care less (being a cat). Gidget, the telenovela-watching poodle across the way, is too busy fancying Max to notice anything else; “I wouldn’t go so far as to call us soulmates,” she notes with dignity, “though any sane person who sees us would”. (Max, meanwhile, barely even knows she exists.) Then there’s Leonard, who listens to classical music in his elegant eyrie – then, as soon as the door closes (“Be a good boy, Leonard”), switches to deafening punk rock with random dogs coming out from behind the sofa.
The plot is familiar, the execution invigorating. Maybe it’s because Hollywood cartoons seem to be in a strange place, stuck between corporate franchise mode (Ice Age, Kung Fu Panda) and an increasing tendency to self-seriousness; last year’s Inside Out seemed to be aimed at everyone except young kids – if anything, it may have freaked them out – while this year’s Zootropolis had too many metaphors and improving messages for adults to untangle, let alone prepubescents. Even The Angry Birds Movie felt obliged to include a childhood flashback to explain how its bird got so angry. In short, there’s an obvious niche for a pure, silly comedy that isn’t trying to burnish a brand or impress parents with its crunchy nutritious moral fibre; The Secret Life of Pets is an original – though a sequel is imminent – but also refreshingly devoted to Cartoon Network anarchy and a 12-year-old boy’s set of values. “Oh great, you’re in love. How gross for everyone.”
Note that the film, though rated ‘K’, may be scary for very young kids (they’ll be happier with the mediocre Minions cartoon that precedes it at the cinema). There’s a rather alarming cabal called the Flushed Pets, led by a clearly deranged rabbit, who plan to rise up against humans, and employ a monstrous viper as an initiation test (this snake’s demise is a classic case of zany Tex Avery humour: first it gets squashed, then a brick wall falls on top of it after it gets squashed, then the wall catches fire!). Max and Duke, the canine interloper who’s trying to take over his home, follow the Flushed Pets to Brooklyn – “They say everyone’s going to Brooklyn these days,” observes a real-estate-minded pet – and impress the company by pretending to be homicidal dogs who’ve offed their owners with that strange whirring thing you find in the kitchen. “You used a blender?” gasps the rabbit. “Hey buddy,” replies Max, unmoved, “we don’t ask what it’s called, we just kill with it”.
As in Minions, the jokes are relatively smart (only a couple are scatological) but what really impresses is the consistency. Nothing here – or anywhere else, probably – is as funny as Scrat from Ice Age, but Ice Age is constantly diluting Scrat with conventional sitcom humour and story beats about ‘family values’ in the name of pleasing every demographic. Secret Life of Pets is unblended comedy, the plot getting slightly lost in the middle (when a cat finds herself in a YouTube cat video and sausages perform ‘We Go Together’ from Grease, among other things) but mostly keeping its shape. There are sotto voce wisecracks, escalating slapstick and amusingly self-aware qualifiers: “I don’t want to use this phrase because it’s offensive to our kind, but you are a bad dog”. There’s even a bit where a dog tries to get together with a cat, upsetting every natural law. “Dude, I’m a cat,” points out the cat; “Well,” shrugs the dog, “nobody’s perfect”. Some Like it Hot in a talking-animal cartoon? You animals!
DIRECTED BY Chris Renaud
WITH THE VOICES OF Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate
US 2016 87 mins