The Secret Life of Pets

For F*** Magazine

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS

Director : Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney
Cast : Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart, Steve Coogan, Ellie Kemper, Bobby Moynihan, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Albert Brooks, Tara Strong
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 1 hr 31 mins
Opens : 1 September 2016
Rating : PG

The Secret Life of Pets posterDouble lives make for inherently intriguing storytelling: from the playboy/vigilante to the Wall Street stockbroker/serial killer to the electronics salesman/superspy, we can’t get enough of them. This animated film sheds light on what pets get up to when their owners head out to work. Naturally, it’s not quite as dramatic as the above examples.

Max (C.K.) is a Jack Russell terrier who is completely devoted to his owner Katie (Kemper). His idyllic existence is upended when Katie brings home a new dog, the shaggy mongrel Duke (Stonestreet). Upset that he is no longer the sole beneficiary of Katie’s affection, Max plots to get Duke kicked out of the house. The two get into an altercation and get lost, running into a gang known as the “Flushed Pets”. These unceremoniously abandoned animals are led by the psychotic rabbit Snowball (Hart), who has vowed vengeance against all humans. Gidget (Slate), a Pomeranian who has been nursing a crush on Max, leads a group of their friends to search for and rescue Max and Duke. The group includes aloof tabby cat Chloe (Bell), geriatric basset hound Pops (Carvey) and Tiberius (Brooks), a red-tailed hawk who has to keep his killer instincts in check. An odyssey through New York ensues, as Max and Duke have to put aside their differences and try to make it home.

The Secret Life of Pets Duke, Katie and Max

The Secret Life of Pets is directed by Chris Renaud, who helmed the Despicable Me movies, and Yarrow Cheney, who was the production designer for them. Animation studio Illumination Entertainment is on a roll, with The Secret Life of Pets now a worldwide box office hit. The bits and pieces that have been cobbled together from other films are clearly evident and have been frequently pointed out: Max’s resentment of Duke echoes Woody’s jealousy when Buzz Lightyear enters Andy’s playroom in Toy Story and the story of stranded pets finding a way back to their owners is reminiscent of Homeward Bound.

The Secret Life of Pets Chloe, Max and Mel

While it isn’t exactly original, the film is energetic and vibrant and remains engaging throughout. The animation isn’t a dizzying sensory overload, and the design of New York City is just heightened enough while still being recognisable. Composer Alexandre Desplat channels George Gershwin with a breezy, jazzy score. Inventive moments of physical humour are showcased during several intricately choreographed set pieces, including a skirmish in which Max and Duke are bounced about between multiple clotheslines and when Buddy (Buresss), a dachshund, navigates a fire escape. While there are obvious jokes about bodily functions, The Secret Life of Pets does hit a few balls in the direction of the parents in the audience. “For me, every breath is a cliff-hanger,” the elderly Pops wheezes. Elsewhere, there’s a reference to the gentrification of Brooklyn. It’s the right shade of ‘adult’. A hallucination sequence in which Sausage Party seems to have invaded this film is more miss than hit, though. It’s not razor-sharp wit, but this reviewer laughed more often than not.

The Secret Life of Pets Chloe, Mel, Buddy, Tiberius, Gidget and Sweet Pea

This film marks C.K.’s first voice role. Cynicism and wry, world-weary observation is very much built into C.K.’s persona as a comedian – as such, this reviewer was pleasantly surprised at how convincing he sounds as an earnest, enthusiastic Jack Russell terrier. The conflict between Max and Duke is efficiently established and predictably enough, they have a few bonding moments along the way, eventually reaching inevitable that “hey, you’re not so bad” point. Stonestreet is a good choice for the loveable big lug, who isn’t as dim-witted as one might expect. Yes, we’re guilty of judging books by their covers.

The Secret Life of Pets Snowball and friends

Speaking of going off appearances, a lot of the humour in The Secret Life of Pets is derived from first impressions being deceiving. There’s the refined poodle who head-bangs to System of a Down’s Bounce, and of course there’s Snowball. Hart does a lot of manic yelling, and while it’s not a bad concept for the primary antagonist, the character’s drastic change of h(e)art towards the film’s conclusion is difficult to buy. As it stands, Snowball is not much more than a less esoteric Rabbit of Caerbannog from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

In this image released by Universal Pictures, Gidget, voiced by Jenny Slate, left, and Max, voiced by Louis C.K., appear in a scene from, "The Secret Lives of Pets." (Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures via AP)

Slate’s distinctive raspy tones sound very apt emanating from a Pomeranian, and the character’s determination to rescue her beloved Max is endearing. Brooks, voicing a very different animated character from Marlin in Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, gets some of the film’s funniest moments. Tiberius is a lonely hawk cooped up in a cage whose nature as a predator gets in the way of him making any friends, and it’s always fun to see a kids’ film with talking animals actually acknowledge the fact that animals eat other animals, while giving the carnivore in question some redeeming features. Bell’s cool indifference as Chloe the cat is an amusing counterpoint to the overall enthusiasm expressed by the various dogs.

The Secret Life of Pets gnarly cats

            We’ve avoided this comparison for this long, so here goes: The Secret Life of Pets can’t match the warmth and profundity of Pixar’s best works, but it’s still sufficiently moving and entertaining, with quality animation work making it a visual treat. Oops, we said “treat” out loud. No, sit, sit!

Summary: Thanks to a funny, talented voice cast and eye-catching animation, The Secret Life of Pets is good fun in spite of its familiar aspects.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Minions

For F*** Magazine

MINIONS

Director : Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin
Cast : Sandra Bullock, Michael Keaton, Jon Hamm, Steve Coogan, Hiroyuki Sanada, Allison Janney, Katy Mixon, Dave Rosenbaum, Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 91 mins
Opens : 18 June 2015
Rating : PG
Clad in blue overalls with thick goggles over their eye(s), preoccupied with bananas and spouting gibberish, the small yellow creatures known as Minions have scuttled their way into the collective popular culture consciousness. In this prequel/spin-off to the Despicable Me movies, we discover the origins of the Minions, who have been on earth since the dawn of time, drawn to evil masters whom they loyally but often ineffectively serve. It is 1968 and after a long period of unemployment, Kevin, Stuart and Bob set out to seek a new villainous employer for their clan. The stylish, dastardly Scarlet Overkill (Bullock) seems to be just the new boss the Minions seek. Her husband, inventor Herb (Hamm), outfits Kevin, Stuart and Bob with nifty gadgets and they are tasked to steal the Queen’s crown from the Tower of London for Scarlet, who dreams of ruling over the British Empire. Naturally, things go awry for our tiny yellow protagonists. Uh oh.

            It is very easy to be cynical about the existence of this spin-off film. A “minion” serves an evil overlord, who in the context of the Despicable Me series, is Steve Carell’s Gru. Here, the Minions, side characters by design, are given their own show to carry. There is an industry term for something with kid-targeted merchandising potential – “toyetic”. The Minions are as toyetic as they come, designed to be slapped on everything and anything that exasperated parents can fork over the cash for, with a new wave of Minion mania set to strike with the release of this movie. When McDonalds offered Minion Happy Meal toys here in Singapore, lines snaked around the block, rivalling those for Hello Kitty merchandise. It was a goofy, likeable idea to start with, but now it can’t help but feel all market tested and focus grouped out. A story focusing solely on the Minions would have worked fine as a short film or as a theme park attraction – actually, those already exist, but that doesn’t diminish the shiny, lucrative appeal of a feature-length summer release.

            That’s essentially a roundabout way of saying that Minions has no real need to exist, which sounds like a very curmudgeon-y statement indeed now that we’ve read it out loud. For what it is, the film is harmless, often quite amusing and very competently animated. Pierre Coffin co-directed both Despicable Me films and Kyle Balda helmed three Minion-centric short films included on the Despicable Me home release. Coffin and Chris Renaud, co-director of the Despicable Me movies, voice all the Minions themselves. There are several eye-catching sequences and plenty of fun period details for the parents in the audience to grab onto – Kevin, Stuart and Bob walking beneath a giant Nixon campaign poster is a delightfully surreal image. There are perhaps one too many pop culture references – for example, the Minions bumble into the Beatle’s famous Abbey Road crossing. The expected slapstick is not in short supply, but this reviewer’s favourite gag, featuring time-travelling mad scientist Dr. Flux, didn’t involve the Minions at all.

            It was assumed that the Minions were the genetically-engineered creations of Gru – the short film “Orientation Day” follows a bunch of freshly-cloned Minions around Gru’s lab. The Minions’ new back-story raises very many questions. Is this one tribe the only group of Minions in existence? What implications are there in these creatures’ nature to be drawn to only the most unsavoury beings currently alive? Would they have leapt at the chance to serve, say, Adolf Hitler? It makes sense if their lives have no meaning apart from indentured servitude if they were grown that way in a lab, but these creatures are naturally occurring. We’re definitely expending too much thought on it, but these notions did prove very distracting throughout the film’s duration.

            Sandra Bullock is the marquee-name star chosen to headline the film as Scarlet Overkill, the super-villainess kitted out in an array of dresses that also serve as booster rockets and who’s out to prove being a flashy career criminal isn’t just a guy’s game. She’s fine, but nowhere near as charismatic and entertaining as Steve Carell before her, and it is evident that she’s not a seasoned voice actress. Playing Scarlet’s laconic husband, Jon Hamm puts more effort into transforming his voice, but it’s not an especially memorable performance. Michael Keaton and Allison Janney voice a couple who let Kevin, Stuart and Bob hitch a car ride to the villain convention; it’s little more than a cameo.

            It’s an animated film containing popular, easily-marketable critters and it’s being released during the summer holidays, so of course Minions is going to do well at the box office. It’s mostly pleasant enough, sometimes annoying but never outright cringe-inducing and it moves along at a decent clip. Because of the inherent simplicity of the Minions as characters and the fact that they have to carry this movie on their little yellow shoulders, this lacks the crucial emotional backbone present in the first Despicable Me film. Kevin, Stuart and Bob may be designed to be analogues for Margo, Edith and Agnes, but they just can’t replace the heart that the three girls and their emotional connection to their adoptive dad bring to the franchise.
Summary: Yes, the tykes will love it and the accompanying adults might find some tidbits hidden in the 60s setting, but Minions can’t transcend its function as a cash grab vehicle.
RATING: 3 out of 5Stars
Jedd Jong