By Nicole Prieto | Staff Writer
To anyone making children’s movies, take heed: Having a young target audience does not give you a license to shell out a terrible story. In what is hopefully the bottom denominator of animated films to come out this year, “The Secret Life of Pets” (SLOP) disappoints with an overabundance of toilet humor and a lack of soul.
Since he was a puppy, Max the terrier (Louis C.K.) had it all. Adopted by Katie (Ellie Kemper) out of a “free puppies” box and living it up in their New York apartment, Max’s favorite hobby is sitting by the door waiting for her to return home from work. Max’s happy life is turned upside down, however, when Katie drags a new dog into their peaceful lives — a giant, furry mutt from the pound named Duke (Eric Stonestreet) who seems all too eager to make himself at home.
It does not take long before the two fight over being top dog in the apartment. However, their rivalry soon pales to the dangers they face when, after getting too far from the local dog walker, the pair find themselves at the mercy of a rogue pet gang, animal control and a questionable sense of direction. It is up to their fellow domesticated pets to save them, as Max and Duke face off against a litany of contrived dangers and largely unmemorable antagonists on their journey to return home before Katie realizes they are gone.
To be frank, there is not much that stands out as “good” in the film’s 90-minute runtime, but there are things it managed to not do wrong. If all you saw was the opening, you would be left with the impression that the story, while perhaps overused, would still turn out all right. The film did a great job of showcasing its rendition of New York City in the introduction. The audience is greeted with a panorama of glistening buildings and vibrant parks before zooming in on numerous apartments and their domesticated denizens.
The animation is nothing new, but it’s not painful. The same cannot be said for the music. While promising at the start and true to the movie’s energetic pace, the score ultimately falls flat. Nothing stands out as memorable outside of Taylor Swift’s opener, “Welcome to New York.” That blatant hint aside, for a film set in the Big Apple, it does an impressively poor job of audio-visually reminding the audience of that fact.
At least the beginning and ending are nice bookends in their presentation of the pets’ lives when their owners are gone. There are neat glimpses of that brief in-between — a Dachshund using a mixer as a back massager, a posh poodle rocking out to heavy metal, a budgie using an electric fan to help play out its fantasies of flying with fighter jets. It looks cute, and it is easier to think better of the film if you ignore what happens in the middle.
But no amount of cuteness will save your expectations from taking a steep decline the moment everyone starts talking. It is hard to remember that there are some fairly big names in the cast with everyone indistinctly screaming into their microphones. How often Mel the pug (Bobby Moynihan) and Buddy the Dachshund (Hannibal Buress) yell at squirrels is eye-roll inducing, poorly invoking the similar running gag in Disney-Pixar’s “Up.” Each time Gidget the Pomeranian (Jenny Slate) gushes about Max or flips out over his well being is just another nail on a chalkboard. The bunny (Kevin Hart) talks too much, enough said.
Forget its record-breaking, opening weekend accolades. “SLOP” should be given an award for having the most forgettable cast this summer. With animated animals whose designs inevitably evoke pets like Doug from “Up,” Remy from “Ratatouille” or Blu from “Rio,” “SLOP” falls far beneath the bar in making them just as sympathetic. In fact, it actively makes them off-putting.
When Duke comes rolling in, as with every “new pet” cartoon, you want to feel bad for him and how unreasonable Max’s jealousy is. But Duke immediately turns into a take-all- or-nothing intruder in Max’s life, threatening him, stealing his bed and literally pulling the rug/blanket out from under Max not long after his introduction. Granted, Max is no angel. He has no qualms about telling Duke how much of a lesser dog he thinks he is and that he deserves to sleep on the floor. Illumination Entertainment should take a few notes from bigger-name studios when it comes to giving its animals palatable personalities.
While this was supposedly a film about animals and their “secret lives,” it also should not have forgotten that we need to care about their humans, too. Why should we care that Max and Duke need to get back to Katie? Who is Katie? What motivated her to stop by the pound to get a giant new dog one day for a New York apartment? The only thing the movie gives is a blithe line from Max’s friend, Chloe the cat (Lake Bell), that Katie is a “dog person.” This is truly the film’s greatest weakness: Too many major things happen off-screen, while almost nothing of substance occurs on-screen. After having a food-induced fever dream at a meat factory, Duke brings up that he had a former owner, an old man named Fred. They had a happy life together — until Duke ran out one night and got picked up by the pound. Upon hearing this, Max gets inspired to reunite Duke with his owner. He suggests they go find Duke’s old home.
But rather than show the audience any of their hijinks running around trying to find it, they just sort of show up on the front porch, where they are indecorously told off by a cat that the old man died. And that is the last mention of Fred altogether. Instead of anything substantive, the film shows a hyperactive rabbit defecating and repeatedly bemoaning a dead duck (goose?) named Ricky, a Pomeranian kicking butt in an unfunny action sequence and pets hijacking vehicles or blowing things up.
This is a production that leans on an egregious amount of slapstick to get its plot moving, and pays little attention to its sense of place. These are a bunch of small house pets running around New York, and Illumination wasted the opportunity to give the city a personality — think of the cities in “Zootopia,” “The Triplets of Belleville” or “Metropolis.” Instead, we get generic streets, a construction site, one block in a neighborhood, a bridge, an unnecessary amount of time in the sewers and an uncomfortable amount of time in a sausage factory.
The audience is given no room to care for these animals, their owners or this particular incarnation of NYC. The film only aims for cheap laughs over smart humor. Perhaps its funniest moment is its YouTube ad plug featuring a cat video of Chloe falling over herself on a party food table. Perhaps that is emblematic of what the film really is: an in-the- moment money shot destined to fade into obscurity in a few years, unlike Illumination’s overly-beloved minions.
A children’s film about pets should not have less emotional depth than “Deadpool.” I went in the theater with few expectations. But I left so disappointed with what I saw, I later rented “Zootopia” to remember that contemporary animation has not gone down the toilet, as the creators of “SLOP” appear to believe. If you are currently at a theater with a young one in tow, thinking “SLOP” might be worth nearly two hours of your lives, consider re-watching “Finding Dory” instead. You will feel better about yourself— and the kid will probably thank you in a few years.