“The Secret Life of Pets”
1 hour, 27 minutes
Warner Home Video
1 hour, 52 minutes
If you had asked me in May which childrens’ film would end up at the top of the summer heap, at least as far as quality is concerned, I doubt I would have picked the one from the “Minions” guys over either Pixar or Spielberg. But where both “Finding Dory” and “The BFG” spend a lot of time wallowing in sentiment, “The Secret Life of Pets” moves briskly along, keeping the backstories and extraneous details to a minimum.
“Pets” tells the tale of Max, voiced with soul by comedian Louis C.K. As a small house dog, Max has it all. Food, a comfortable place to sleep, and the love of a good woman — in this case his owner Katie. Max is clearly smitten, which makes the betrayal all the more bitter when Katie brings home a new dog from the shelter.
Duke, voiced by “Modern Family’s” Eric Stonestreet, is a massive, hairy beast and Max is immediately suspicious. But when Max tries to drive a wedge between his owner and his new roommate, he finds that Duke is more than big and hairy, he’s also desperate not to go back to the pound.
On a trip to the park with the neighborhood dog walker, the rivalry boils over, and the two dogs find themselves on an adventure neither planned for. Together they embark on a journey across the city, from the sewers to the rooftops, encountering every brand of pet (or ex-pet) you could ask for, from a fearless falcon to a fluffy, yet unhinged, bunny.
There’s no question that “The Secret Life of Pets” is a lot of fun. If I had a criticism, it’s that there’s not a lot more to it than that. The life lessons are pretty obvious and the film is nothing if not predictable. The pets pretty much act like you’d expect and the story clips along, never slowing down long enough to really examine anything.
Of course, I just watched a movie about a magical giant that was nothing but slow, so I’m not complaining. There’s nothing wrong with just being fun. That said, there is an interesting facet to the story that explores the contentious relationship between strays and pets. “Pets” has fun riffing on the economic disparity we see played out on the nightly news within the microcosm of these NYC animals. Strays, many of whom live in the underground tunnels that crisscross the city, are a rough and tumble bunch, some of whom are planning an actual revolution, led by the maniacal Snowball, the aforementioned bunny, voiced by Kevin Hart.
The voice acting in “Pets” is solid, though I didn’t find a single character to love like I did with Ed O’Neill’s Hank in “Finding Dory.” “Pets,” though, is much less uneven, and ultimately more fun than that film, and comedians like C.K., Hart, and Stonestreet, with the additional talents of Jenny Slate, Hannibal Buress, Ellie Kemper, and the welcome return of Dana Carvey, bring plenty of energy.
“The Secret Life of Pets” may be slight, but it is sweet and most of all, fun. What better way to spend a summer afternoon?
“The Secret Life of Pets” is rated PG for mild rude humor.
While I’ve got you, I wanted to briefly talk about something I meant to discuss last week with Spielberg’s “BFG.” The man’s influence is spreading far and wide and we’re starting to see a sort of “Amblin Effect” on science fiction and fantasy that can’t be anything but good. New television coming out of Amazon and Netflix are deliberately aping early Spielberg with shows like “Stranger Things,” and films like “10 Cloverfield Lane,” though darker, have the feel of films like “E.T.” and “Poltergeist.” J.J. Abrams is often blatant in his affection for Spielberg. “Super 8,” though not very successful, was an homage to Abrams’ hero.
I recently watched a small indie film from director Jeff Nichols that tries very hard to achieve a Spielbergian vibe, with mixed results. “Midnight Special,” starring Michael Shannon, Joel Egerton, Kirsten Dunst and Adam Driver is about a boy with a mysterious power, on the run from both religious zealots who believe the world is about to end, and the FBI who want to know how the boy can seemingly pick their secrets out of the air.
The film is well-acted and definitely feels like it could have been made in the 1980s. It is, however, a little too reverent, and takes too long to get off the ground.
I don’t know if, as a society, our tastes have changed, or if these films are just missing a spark, but I felt it with “Super 8” and “The BFG” as well — a dragginess that makes the movie more of a chore than an adventure. As more and more of our young hero’s power is revealed, the film picks up the pace somewhat, but certain plot threads are unceremoniously dumped and the implications of a fairly grand finale feel like they were never considered.
I enjoyed “Midnight Special” — it’s definitely a well-made, well-acted film, but in calling back to classics from my childhood, it felt like it should have been so much more.
“Midnight Special” is rated PG-13 for violence and mild language.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.