Venom review

VENOM

Director : Ruben Fleischer
Cast : Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Reid Scott, Jenny Slate, Scott Haze
Genre : Comics/Action/Sci-fi
Run Time : 112 mins
Opens : 4 October 2018
Rating : PG13

Tom Hardy is his own worst enemy and maybe also his own best friend in this Marvel Comics adaptation. Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a journalist engaged to successful lawyer Anne Weying (Michelle Williams). Brock has trained his sights on Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), an industrialist and inventor who has privately funded space exploration missions. As the head of the Life Foundation, Drake portrays himself as a benevolent force for good, but Brock suspects that Drake is secretly conducting unethical, illegal activities which have resulted in civilian deaths.

A Life Foundation spacecraft crashes on earth, and its cargo, an alien life form, escapes. This is a symbiote, which needs to bond to a host to survive. When Dr Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), a scientist working for the Life Foundation, approaches Brock as a whistle-blower, Brock investigates and another symbiote bonds to him. This is the entity known as Venom, which manifests as a voice in Brock’s head and takes over his body, giving him enhanced strength and healing and causes him to emanate tendrils. Brock must make sense of this new unwelcome guest while uncovering the extent of Drake’s misdeeds, eventually learning to coexist with Venom and use his newfound abilities to his advantage.

There have been multiple attempts at a Venom movie, including one in the late 90s that was reportedly slated to star Dolph Lundgren, and another attempt that would have taken place within the continuity of the Amazing Spider-Man movies. Then of course there was the iteration played by Topher Grace in Spider-Man 3, which left many fans unsatisfied.

Venom was created by Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie, and is arguably Spider-Man’s best-known, most visually striking nemesis. The character’s origin directly involves Spider-Man – in the comics, the symbiote is a discarded alien suit worn by the web-slinging hero. As such, a Venom movie that is completely removed from Spider-Man feels like a tricky prospect. This reviewer had to remind himself that at least the symbiote’s host is still called “Eddie Brock”, unlike the Catwoman movie which starred a character named Patience Phillips, who was nothing like the Catwoman of the comics, Selina Kyle.

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The film’s somewhat tormented production process has led to an odd beast. Venom is tonally weird. One would be forgiven for expecting a dark, disturbing movie – after all, the title character is a slimy alien parasite with pointy teeth and a long, icky tongue. However, what Venom most resembles is a buddy comedy. The symbiote seems characterised as the friend who’s a bad influence, pushing Eddie to do things he would rather not do. The symbiote is an obvious metaphor for the darkness deep within a person being brought to the surface, so it is somewhat baffling that the film does practically nothing with this concept.

The action sequences are moderately entertaining but not especially memorable. There’s a motorcycle chase and a sequence in which Venom takes on an entire SWAT team in a smoke-filled apartment building lobby, but any time the full-on creature takes over the action, things feel distinctly synthetic. The climactic fight is a battle between one thing made of CGI and another thing made of CGI, set against a mostly CGI backdrop.

Then, there is the PG-13 rating. A movie doesn’t have to be R-rated to be good, it doesn’t even have to be R-rated to be effectively disturbing. However, this is a movie in which the title character bites people’s heads off and impales his enemies through the torso. It’s a bit difficult to sell the viciousness when it must happen off-screen or obscured while something else is going on. That said, this movie could’ve been R-rated and still turned out limp.

Hardy is perfectly watchable in the role and tries to make something interesting out of the material. He ends up performing quite a bit of physical comedy, which seems out of place, but which he commits to. There is the sense that Hardy could have brought so much more to the table had the script allowed him to dig into the inherently unsettling nature of the bond between the Venom symbiote and its human host, but it seems the film is more interested in back-and-forth banter.

Michelle Williams is wasted as a character who isn’t too much more than the designated girlfriend, even though there is a nice nod to her character in the comics. Riz Ahmed plays a ruthless Elon Musk-type, who is at once a cartoony villain while also bland and barely menacing. Jenny Slate’s mousey scientist who might just be the one to bring the villain down seems like she might be interesting, but similarly gets little to do. While some comic book movies suffer from far too many characters, there are almost too few interesting characters at all in Venom.

The casual viewer might find Venom a passable diversion, but anyone who is particularly attached to the comics will be sorely dissatisfied. The film attempts to translate the character’s sarcasm to the screen, but lacks the acid-drenched wickedness which must accompany said sarcasm. The result is a relatively safe movie about a character who should always feel at least a little dangerous. Director Ruben Fleischer’s best film remains Zombieland, so perhaps comedy is where he should focus his efforts. There is a goofiness to Venom that is strongly reminiscent of comic book movies made when the filmmakers making them hadn’t fully figured things out yet: a bit of Spawn here, a bit of the 2002 Hulk movie there.

Stick around for a mid-credits tag which hints as sequel – as mediocre as this outing is, we’d be darned if we didn’t want to see a sequel make good on what this scene promises. There’s also a sneak peek at a forthcoming movie at the very end of the credits.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

Despicable Me 3

For F*** Magazine

DESPICABLE ME 3

Directors : Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda, Eric Guillon
Cast : Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Trey Parker, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Nev Scharrel, Steve Coogan, Julie Andrews, Jenny Slate
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 1h 30min
Opens : 15 June 2017
Rating : PG

Supervillain-turned-doting-dad Gru (Carell) is back, with his wife Lucy (Wiig), adopted daughters Margo (Cosgrove), Edith (Gaier) and Agnes (Scharrel), and yes, the Minions (Coffin) in tow. In this instalment, Gru and Lucy face off against Balthazar Bratt (Parker), a dastardly, bitter former child star with an 80s pop culture and fashion gimmick. Gru faces upheaval when Valerie Da Vinci (Slate), the new chief of the Anti-Villain League, unceremoniously fires both Gru and Lucy. The Minions, longing for the glory days of being on the wrong side of the law, revolt and leave Gru’s employ. During all this, Gru discovers a secret that his mother Marlena (Andrews) has been keeping from him for his entire life: Gru has a twin brother. Gru finally meets Dru (also Carell), who is eager to join his brother on his exploits and attempts to convince Gru to carry on the proud family legacy of villainy. Gru and Dru embark on a quest to steal back a priceless diamond from Balthazar, as Balthazar plots his revenge on the town that scorned him: Hollywood.

We’ll be upfront about it: Despicable Me 3 wasn’t exactly high on our list of summer movies we were looking forward to. One is likely to find more people who are annoyed by the Minions than who find them adorable, but it’s not just that. The first Despicable Me film was weird, inventive, subversive and full of heart. At that point, Illumination Entertainment was still an underdog. Now, with a string of box office successes under its belt, not to mention tons of Minions merchandise and even theme park rides, it all seems to have gone to the heads of producer Chris Meledandri and the other Illumination bigwigs. The studio appears to be heading down the Dreamworks path, and Meledandri has been instated as Universal’s equivalent to Disney/Pixar’s John Lasseter. Early in Despicable Me 3, we get a particularly mean-spirited swipe at Finding Nemo. This can’t help but recall the sly, slightly bitter digs at Disney that were snuck into the Shrek movies.

Kids in general are unlikely to care about animation studios jostling for supremacy, and kids in general are likely to enjoy Despicable Me 3. The animation is energetic, the gizmos and gadgets on display are over-the-top and imaginative, and there is so much slapstick. The main issue here is that the film isn’t character-driven at all. In the first film, the blossoming relationship between Gru and his young charges served as the film’s emotional core. Then, the Minions became the toyetic marketing sensation they are, and that got pushed to the background. One can sense directors Coffin (who also voices all the Minions), Balda and Guillon struggling with the question “how much of the Minions is too much?” For most of this film, the Minions are separated from Gru, accidentally entering a singing competition and then getting tossed into prison, where they spoof Jailhouse Rock. It’s all gag-driven, and there are several genuinely funny jokes here, but it ends up being scattershot.

“Long-lost twin brother” is a plot device screenwriters truck out when they’re all out of ideas. In this case, there’s an attempt to wink and nod at how it’s a bit of a cheat, but there’s still not enough to justify going this route. Carell gets to try a slightly different, higher-pitched voice as the irrepressibly cheerful Dru, and for all of five seconds, it’s funny that Dru has lustrous blonde locks, while Gru is bald. Despicable Me 3 tries for an emotional arc with Lucy struggling in her position as the girls’ adoptive mother, clashing with Margo in particular. While it’s an attempt to add depth to the story, it doesn’t become much more than just an attempt, and the conflict is resolved too easily.

Parker, along with South Park co-creator Matt Stone, has long been the gatekeeper of offending everyone for the sake of comedy. Parker and Stone have been especially savage towards what they view as the Hollywood elites, who will stop at nothing for a quick buck. As such, it seems like a sell-out move for Parker to take a role in the Despicable Me franchise, but the character is amusing. A delusional former child actor who obsessively grasps at the remains of his glory days is a familiar archetype, but the 80s gimmick is enjoyably silly. There are perhaps one too many snippets of songs from the era, including Take on Me, Bad, Sussudio and Physical, though.

There exist more desperate examples of attempts to keep floundering franchises afloat, and there’s still enough wit on display in Despicable Me 3. However, parents are likely to get increasingly impatient with these movies as more and more get made, when there are other animated films out there that older viewers will get more out of.

Summary: if Minions make you miserable, you don’t need us to tell you to give Despicable Me 3 a wide berth. There’s more emphasis on sustaining a lucrative franchise, less heart, and more animated zaniness to amuse the kids and annoy the adults.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Brain on Fire

For F*** Magazine

BRAIN ON FIRE 

Director : Gerard Barrett
Cast :  Chloe Grace Moretz, Jenny Slate, Thomas Mann, Carrie-Anne Moss, Richard Armitage, Tyler Perry
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 1h 30min
Opens : 4 May 2017
Rating : PG13

In this biopic/medical drama, Chloë Grace Moretz finds her life spinning out of control, and she doesn’t know what’s causing it. Moretz plays Susannah Cahalan, a 21-year-old reporter for the New York Post. Susannah befriends her colleague Margo (Slate), and her stern but fair boss Richard (Perry) views her as a rising star in the bullpen. She’s dating a sweet aspiring musician named Steven (Mann), and all seems to be going well. Suddenly, with no prior history of mental illness, Susannah suffers a breakdown, starts hallucinating and having seizures. Her divorced parents Tom (Armitage) and Rhona (Moss) are understandably worried for her, as various diagnoses come back inconclusive. With not just her job but her life threatened by this mysterious condition, only neurologist Dr. Souhel Najjar (Navid Negahban) might be able to get to the bottom of Susannah’s circumstance.

Brain on Fire is based on the memoir of the same name by the real-life Susannah Cahalan. Charlize Theron optioned the film rights and dropped out of a supporting role, but remained onboard as a producer. Any film that deals with a rare illness, particularly one which affects the mind, is in danger of being manipulative. Writer-director Gerard Barrett succumbs to the tropes one often sees in movies or TV shows in which characters suffer mental breakdowns. However, he strikes a fine balance of making the audience uncomfortable by depicting the harrowing effects of anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, while refraining from making things exploitative. Brain on Fire often feels like the ‘Hollywood version’ of Susannah’s experience, but it’s engaging and sufficiently credible even as it feels a little overwrought.

One of the themes that drives the story is the feeling of powerlessness that a young person can have when stepping into the adult world. Susannah is fresh out of college, and initially attributes her symptoms to simply being overwhelmed. Irish writer-director Barrett is himself young and successful – this is the 29-year-old’s third feature film. Upon finding out Barrett’s age, a sense of ennui washed over this reviewer. The story takes place in New York City, arguably one of the worst places in the world to suffer from a sudden mental breakdown. Unfortunately, Vancouver doesn’t do the best job of doubling for the Big Apple in this case, especially because Brain on Fire doesn’t quite convey the overwhelming sensory stimulus of New York City.

Dakota Fanning was originally cast in the role of Susannah, with scheduling conflicts leading to Moretz replacing her. Moretz’s bubbly demeanour makes Susannah a pleasant protagonist to begin with, which means it’s easier with the audience to stick with her as she experiences the crushing lows and unsettling delirium that she does. It’s a fine performance, but as one would expect, also a showy one. It’s easy to overplay struggling with an affliction physical or mental, with the unfortunate implication over the years being that if actors want to win awards, they’ll play characters who are stricken with grave illnesses. What helps mitigate this cynicism is the knowledge that Susannah Cahalan is a real person, who had to sign off on this portrayal of her. Even if Moretz’s acting borders on over-the-top, she keeps Susannah feeling like an actual person as she rides the frightening roller coaster that is anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.

The supporting cast is fine, but each character falls to neatly into boxes labelled with their archetypes. Mann’s Steven is the dopey, devoted boyfriend – he seems a better fit for the role than the initially-cast Will Poulter. Slate’s Margo is the upbeat friend from work, while Perry’s Richard is more or less Laurence Fishburne as Perry White in the DC Extended Universe movies. It’s not a huge role, but Perry gets to show that he has decent acting chops when he’s not in anything he writes or directs. As the concerned parents, Armitage and Moss don’t get too much to do, and Armitage wrestling with his accent is more than a little distracting.

While it is heart-rending to watch Susannah go through hell as her loved ones are rendered helpless, the parts of the film that deal with the medical theory are somewhat more interesting. Barrett is conscious that too much jargon might bore audiences. As such, Negahban’s warmth and quiet intelligence is greatly welcome. The film highlights how much harm misdiagnoses can be – it’s estimated that only 10% of people who have anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis were properly diagnosed at the time.

As heartless as it sounds, Susannah Cahalan’s ordeal is far from the most dramatic or extreme true story to be brought to the big screen. However, this movie is important in its own way. While the specifics feel embellished slightly, with the romantic and workplace comedy elements of the film too obvious, Moretz’s performance holds one’s attention.

Summary: While there’s the niggling vibe of an illness-of-the-week Lifetime TV movie here, Brain on Fire is mostly moving and the right amount of unsettling.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Gifted

For F*** Magazine

GIFTED 

Director : Marc Webb
Cast : Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer, Keir O’Donnell, Elizabeth Marvel
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1h 41min
Opens : 20 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Brief Coarse Language)

       Being a genius must be awesome. If we’ve learnt anything from watching TV, it means you can solve crimes with a single glance, shaming the stubborn cops who ever doubted you in the first place. But those same TV shows have also taught us that being a genius can be as much a curse as a gift, as is evident in this drama.

Mary Adler (Grace) is an exceptionally gifted 7-year-old with a keen acumen for mathematics. She lives in a central Florida town and is cared for by her uncle Frank (Evans), after her mother Diane died when Mary was a baby. Mary’s only friend is her neighbour Roberta Taylor (Spencer), who helps Frank look after her. On Mary’s first day at school, her teacher Bonnie Stevenson (Slate) quickly realises that Mary’s capabilities far outstrip those of her peers. Frank rejects a scholarship for Mary to attend a school that caters for gifted children, saying that his sister wanted Mary to lead a normal childhood. Frank’s estranged mother Evelyn (Duncan) sues for custody of her granddaughter, believing that Mary’s potential will not be realised if she remains under Frank’s care. A battle to determine what is best for Mary ensues.

Gifted is directed by Marc Webb of (500) Days of Summer and The Amazing Spider-Man fame. It’s an intimate drama with comedic elements and while one would expect it to be saccharine and sentimental given the above synopsis, the film refrains from heavy-handed emotional manipulation. Hardened cynics are still advised to give this a wide berth, though.

Tom Flynn’s screenplay is witty and the film progresses at a steady pace. Gifted could’ve easily been overwrought, but Webb demonstrates sufficient restraint. This has the double-edged sword of rendering the story more believable, but also less memorable. Since it revolves around a preternaturally intelligent child and her ‘dad’ who has trouble keeping up, there are moments when Gifted feels like a sitcom. However, this is mitigated by how cinematic the film looks, thanks to cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh’s postcard-ready frames, and location filming on Tybee Island, Georgia, doubling for Florida.

Evans may be best known as Marvel’s star-spangled man, but it seems that he gravitates towards smaller projects, having indicated that the pomp and circumstance that come with promoting the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies aren’t exactly his bag. Both he and child actress Grace work well off each other, creating a compelling bond. While Frank’s heart is in the right place, he makes questionable judgement calls, but the film does a fine job of cluing us in to where he’s coming from.

Mary is the linchpin of the plot, and as such, must be more than a mere plot device. Thankfully, Grace is up for the task. Her performance is mostly in line with the stock ‘precocious kids’ we’ve seen in countless movies and TV shows. However, Grace gets to showcase her acting chops in several dramatic scenes, proving she’s more than just a cute moppet. That said, she is plenty adorable, and when she knits her brows and furrows intensely, it’s hard not to go “aww”.

Evans and Slate share palpable chemistry, and even though the romance between Frank and Bonnie is the most formulaic ingredient in a film made of them, the two performers are enjoyable to watch. It’s no surprise that the relationship carried over into real life, and though the couple has broken up, they apparently remain good friends. Duncan is the right degree of icy as Frank’s supercilious mother. We’re meant to root against her, but she’s not an outright villain either, Duncan fully able to parse those nuances. Unfortunately, Spencer doesn’t get too much to do as the kind neighbour who’s become invested in Mary’s upbringing.

While Gifted doesn’t pack enough of an emotional punch, nor does it delve deep enough into the myriad challenges of raising a child like Mary, is watchable and engaging. Even though it’s comprised of familiar narrative elements, director Webb and writer Flynn still demonstrate skill in telling the story, particularly in parcelling out details about Mary’s mother as the film progresses. Even if it isn’t spectacularly complex or profound, Gifted has significantly more on its mind than the average family drama tearjerker.

Summary: Gifted is a slickly packaged heartstring-plucker that features sincere performances and moving moments, even if it falls short of brilliance.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Lego Batman Movie

For F*** Magazine

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE

Director : Chris McKay
Cast : (Voice Cast) Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Jenny Slate, Mariah Carey, Billy Dee Williams
Genre : Action/Animation
Run Time : 1h 45min
Opens : 9 February 2017
Rating : PG

the-lego-batman-movie-posterHe puts the ‘bat’ in ‘brickbat’ and serves as a stumbling block to Gotham City’s evildoers: he is Lego Batman (Arnett). When the Joker (Galifianakis) leads a collection of Batman’s rogues gallery in an assault on Gotham, Batman is confident that he alone can take them on. Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Elizondo), whose primary job has been activating the Bat-signal to summon Batman, retires. Replacing Gordon is his daughter Barbara (Dawson), who calls attention to Batman’s inefficacy in keeping Gotham’s streets crime-free, much to Batman’s chagrin. Alfred Pennyworth (Fiennes), loyal butler to Batman/Bruce Wayne, sees Batman’s self-aggrandizement as a façade. After accidentally adopting orphan Dick Grayson (Cera), Bruce must learn that relying on others in the face of overwhelming odds isn’t a sign of weakness, eventually teaming up with Robin/Dick Grayson, Alfred and Batgirl/Barbara Gordon to face an other-worldly threat.

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The Lego Batman Movie is a spin-off of 2014’s The Lego Movie, and is directed by Chris McKay, who served as an animation co-director on The Lego Movie. McKay has also directed multiple episodes of Robot Chicken, the stop-motion sketch comedy series which lampoons comics, cartoons and other aspects of geek culture. The Lego Batman Movie is reminiscent of Robot Chicken in its style of humour, which is heavily reference-based, albeit more kid-friendly than Robot Chicken. There are shout-outs to elements both well-known and obscure of the DC Comics universe and beyond, which are rewarding to spot. However, since this is based on a line of toys and primarily made to sell toys, there are moments when it’s evident that The Lego Batman Movie struggles to strike a balance between appealing to geeks and appealing to children.

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The animation by Animal Logic Studios is done in the same style as The Lego Movie, which emulates stop-motion animation using computer graphics. Each frame bursts with lovingly-rendered detail and the film is consistently eye-catching, if not quite as creatively designed as The Lego Movie. This version of the Batcave is delightfully outlandish, packed with needlessly extravagant machinery and containing a ludicrous number of vehicles with a ‘Bat’ prefix in their names. Of the various and sundry modes of transportation utilised by the Dark Knight in this movie, something called ‘the Scuttler’ is the most interesting. It’s a mecha that walks on four stilt-like legs and expresses emotion with dog-like ears which can droop to indicate sadness.

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There is a Batman for all seasons, and part of the character’s longevity is his malleability. The Lego Batman Movie does a fine job of gently poking fun at various incarnations of the Caped Crusader, from the 1966 TV show to the 1989 film to the recent Batman v Superman. At times, it’s evident that this wants to be Deadpool for Juniors, the film begins with Batman breaking the fourth wall and providing voiceover as the opening logos roll. Arnett’s performance, impeccable in its timing and just the right pitch of gruff, suits the tone of the film to a tee. Fiennes’ drolly prim and proper Alfred serves as a wonderful complement.

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Galifianakis’ turn as the Joker is passable, but is far from the high bar set by Mark Hamill, whose indelible vocal performance as the Clown Prince of Crime has made him the definitive voice of the Joker in many fans’ eyes (make that ears). The film addresses the psychosexual nature of Joker and Batman’s mutual obsession with the other, which Batman vehemently denies. Jenny Slate’s Harley Quinn is a slight disappointment, largely lacking the character’s signature Brooklyn accent.

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While Batman’s rogues gallery is generally agreed on as being the most dynamic in all of comics, these villains don’t make too much of an impact in The Lego Batman Movie. Sure, the film crams a lot of them in, but the likes of Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), Poison Ivy (Riki Lindhome), Clayface (Kate Miccuci), Mr. Freeze and anyone who isn’t the Joker seem relegated to the background. It is fun to see D-listers like Condiment King and Kite-Man onscreen. Bane (Doug Benson) speaks in the same accent Tom Hardy affected for The Dark Knight Rises, even more amusing given how Bane was quoted in a certain inaugural address.

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One of the funniest aspects of the story is how Bruce Wayne adopts Dick Grayson completely by accident. The interpretation of Dick as a wide-eyed, bespectacled dork is a departure from the source material, but Cera’s inherent awkwardness as a performer suits this version fine. This reviewer enjoyed the changes made to the Barbara Gordon character, who is introduced as her father’s successor as Police Commissioner long before she dons the Batgirl costume. Batman has romantic designs on Batgirl – this is a pairing which many fans understandably find icky, and was a major factor in the backlash against the animated film The Killing Joke. Thankfully, Barbara does not reciprocate Bruce’s advances. The stunt casting of Mariah Carey as Mayor MacCaskill is completely unnecessary – but perhaps this can be viewed as akin to the celebrity cast on the ’66 Batman TV show.

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The Lego Batman Movie’s final act does involve a giant portal opening up in the sky, unleashing destruction that the townsfolk must scurry away from. There are some surprises as to who or what emerges from said portal, but even given that, it’s easy to tune out during the climactic battle. There’s an overreliance on incongruous pop ditties and not all the jokes land, but things are funny and frenetic enough to propel The Lego Batman Movie forward.

Summary: The Lego Batman movie prizes reference-based humour over plot, but even if it doesn’t use the Lego Batman world to its full comic potential, it’s an entertaining time.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

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