The Secret Life of Pets


Just one big happy family.

Just one big happy family.

(2016) Animated Feature (Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Chris Renaud, Steve Coogan, Michael Beattie, Sandra Echeverria, Jaime Camel, Kiely Renaud, Jim Cummings, Laraine Newman, Tara Strong. Directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney

 

We all lead busy lives. We spend most of our waking hours at work or school, hanging out with friends, being everywhere but at home. Those of us who own pets know that one of the best things about leaving the house is coming back home to our beloved fur babies (and scale babies and feather babies). Dogs, with their over-the-top “I thought I was never going to see you again” greetings, cats with their indifference – it doesn’t matter. We are always happy to see our pets. But have you ever wondered what your pets are up to while you’re out earning a living?

Wonder no more. The filmmakers behind the Despicable Me franchise have figured it out for you. Max (C.K.) is a pampered terrier living in a New York apartment with his sweet owner Katie (Kemper) to whom he is absolutely devoted as only a dog can be. Elsewhere in the apartment complex are a menagerie of pets – a fluffy Pomeranian named Gidget (Slate) who has a major crush on Max, the good-hearted but not-bright bulldog Mel (Moynihan), the punk poodle Buddy (Buress), Chloe (Bell), a cat with the kind of appetite that would put a competitive eater to shame and Norman (C. Renaud), a guinea pig lost in the air ducts for two weeks.

Max’s world is turned upside down though when Katie brings home Duke (Stonestreet), a shaggy bear of a dog who is a rescue pet. She introduces him as his new brother, but Max isn’t so sure. The ginormous Duke quickly takes over all of Max’s creature comforts from his plush doggie bed to his bowl of kibble. For his part, Duke sees Max as a rival for Katie’s affection who needs to be put in his place. The two begin to conspire against each other, which leads to the two of them after a somewhat unlikely series of events being stranded outside of the apartment.

Chased by animal control and a group of pets who had been abandoned or flushed out into the sewers, led by a manic bunny named Snowball (Hart) who has a thing against pampered pets, the two flee through the streets of Brooklyn, trying to find their way back home to Katie. Forced to work together, they develop a grudging respect for one another. However, Gidget isn’t letting Max down; she organizes the rest of the pets into a rescue team. Aided by Tiberius (Brooks), a hawk who is trying to keep his appetite under control, and Pops (Carvey), a partially paralyzed beagle who has “connections,” will they find their friends before one of the two groups chasing them do, or will Max and Duke make it home on their own? Or will everyone fail, leaving the two “brothers” at the mercy of animal control or the homicidal bunny?

I was a little bit disappointed by the movie. The animation is top notch and is definitely a love letter to New York, which is rendered with charming detail. It’s the idealized New York of Gershwin and dozens of sitcoms since, and it works as a believable environment for the characters. The cast of some of the best comedians working in the business today deliver their lines with snap and patter and there are plenty of moments that are laugh-out-loud funny for both parents and their kids.

The problems are however that you feel that you’re watching a bunch of other movies. There are a ton of references to other films, stylistically, subtly, sometimes in your face and through little Easter Eggs. It’s the kind of pop culture deluge that made some of the later Shrek films kind of a slog. While I liked the concept just fine, the execution was where it fell down. The middle third – which commences once Max and Duke leave the apartment – goes at a bit of a crawl. Yes, the animation is wonderful but I found it a bit of a bore to be brutally honest.

In a summer where it seems family movies are king, The Secret Life of Pets has been a blockbuster and a sequel has already been greenlit. I don’t know that I liked this as much as some of the other animated features I’ve seen this year – to be honest few of them have really been better than average – but there is enough to satisfy the target audience nicely and not be too difficult for a parent to sit through multiple times. I certainly have no difficulty imagining that this will be a regular request for kids once it hits the home video market. Still, I would have liked it to be a bit less pop culture-oriented and a bit more timeless, like some of the films it paid homage to. The Secret Life of Pets had all the ingredients it needed to be a classic and at the end of the day, it’s just a decent kid-flick. That’s not nearly good enough given what it could have been.

REASONS TO GO: There are some really funny sequences here. The animation is superb.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags quite a bit over the middle third. It’s a little too derivative for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES:  A little bit of rude humor and cartoon action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first film to gross over $100 million in it’s opening weekend that isn’t a sequel or based on previously released material.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toy Story
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Equals

Advertisements

Shaun the Sheep Movie


Shaun the Sheep reads the early reviews.

Shaun the Sheep reads the early reviews.

(2015) Animated Feature (Lionsgate) Starring the voices of Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes,  Omid Djalili, Richard Webber, Kate Harbour, Tim Hands, Andy Nyman, Simon Greenall, Emma Tate, Jack Paulson, Sean Connolly, Henry Burton, Dhimant Vyas, Sophie Laughton, Nia Medi James, Stanley Unwin, Nick Park. Directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak

Variety asserts that Shaun the Sheep is comparable to the legendary French comedian Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot and while that is a bit of a stretch, I can at least see where the reviewer is coming from. Certainly Shaun is about as loquacious as the French comedian.

Shaun the Sheep (Fletcher) made his first appearance in a Wallace and Gromit short before getting a series of 7-minute shorts of his own, more than a hundred of them most of which have been broadcast on TV. This is the first full-length feature and it follows the storyline of most of the shorts, to wit Shaun and his fellow sheep try to get out of doing any farm work, having to outwit the dog Bitzer (Sparkes) and the unnamed balding Farmer (Sparkes). The shorts are clever and cute.

This time, however, things get a little out of hand when after lulling the Farmer to sleep by jumping over a fence until he nods off, they store him in what the Brits call a caravan and we call a trailer. When Bitzer gets wind of the deception, he goes to wake up his master, only to send the Caravan on a beeline for the city – London although not specifically named. Upon arrival the farmer is bonked on the head and loses all his memories. Having no ID on him, he wanders the streets, trying to find some sort of clue as to who he is and what he does for a living. He ends up mistakenly figuring out that he’s a hairdresser and uses the clippers to sheer the heads of his celebrity clients, recreating the same sorts of styles he used to give his sheep.

Shaun knows he needs to go retrieve the Farmer so he heads out to the City, only to be followed by the rest of the flock and Bitzer. A super-zealous animal control catcher named Trumper (Djalili) is on the prowl for Shaun and his friends and eventually captures Shaun and Bitzer, imprisoning them in a dog shelter which looks much more like death row. There they meet the world’s ugliest dog who has no hope of being adopted. Their new friend helps them escape and eventually hide out, where Shaun comes up with a last-ditch plan to get their Farmer back home to the farm – and put everything to right.

I have to admit that my hopes weren’t high for this, as it is the first Aardman animation feature in awhile to arrive with little or no fanfare and quite frankly, it may very well be one of the best things the studio has ever done. One thing I’d worried about is that there is absolutely no dialogue – the animals communicate with gesture, look and an occasional bleat or woof. Humans speak in an unintelligible gibberish that puts the “WAH WAH WAH” spoken by the adults in the Peanuts cartoons to shame.

There is obviously a great deal of affection for the rustic way of life; the farmhouse is one of those beautiful old stone farmhouses that dot the English countryside, the meadow is beautiful and even the “work” that is done doesn’t seem all that taxing. The bucolic setting and the obvious affection the sheep feel for the farmer and vice versa is kind of moving. You would think that a farmer who has grown to middle age without a human partner might get unutterably lonely but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

Like most of Aardman’s animations, this is clever as all get out. It certainly seems to be aimed at a very young audience, certainly toddlers on up but unlike a lot of American entertainment aimed at the very young, this is just as easily digested by adult viewers. It’s very short as you might expect (barely over an hour) and not for a moment did I ever feel bored or talked down to. The opening sequence, done as a Super 8 film of the Farmer as a young man with Shaun as a baby and Bitzer as a puppy establishes the mood; it’s a rather sweet sequence and while critics have praised it, some might find it too treacly. Those who don’t like cute movies for kids would be well-advised to move on.

The charm here is undeniable and quite frankly although it doesn’t have the lofty aspirations of Inside Out or the epic setting of Minions this certainly belongs with those two films as the very best family films of the summer. Some families might be unaware of the character or the movie, but this is one I’d highly recommend for an afternoon out at the movies with the kids.

REASONS TO GO: Super charming. Clever like all Aardman films. Good for adults and kids alike.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little over-sentimental in places. Those who don’t like kid movies that are cute will not like this.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Twenty animators worked on the film, each producing about two seconds of footage per day.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mr. Holmes

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted


Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

Children, if you learn one less from this movie, remember this – Monte Carlo is relatively easy to invade by sea.

(2012) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer, Andy Richter, Frances McDormand, Jessica Chastain, Martin Short, Bryan Cranston, Vinnie Jones, Paz Vega. Directed by Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon

 

I think it’s relatively easy to entertain kids, from the standpoint of animation. I mean, just look at most of the programming on the Cartoon Network; the animation is godawful, the humor gross, and little to recommend it other than it gets kids out of their parents hair for a little while. If my parents had gotten a gander at “The Regular Show” and some of the other more popular shows on the network, they would have chucked the TV out the window but since we lived in a ranch house, my Dad probably just would have taken an axe to the damn thing instead.

While there are some really good animated movies out there (thanks, Pixar) that both parents and children can watch together, there is also a lot of crap as well. For a long time, I put the first to movies of the Madagascar franchise in that category so to say the least, I wasn’t looking forward to the third installment in the series. Boy was I pleasantly surprised.

The renegade zoo animals from the Central Park Zoo – Alex the Lion (Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Rock), Melman the Giraffe (Schwimmer) and Gloria the Hippo (Smith) – are where we left them at the conclusion of Madagascar: Escape2Africa; stuck in the savannah with the natives while the Penguins have flown the monkey-powered super-plane to Monte Carlo to raise enough cash to get them back to New York. Alex in particular is suffering from homesickness. Even a birthday gift of a mud brick model of the Big Apple doesn’t seem to help.

The four friends decide that the penguins have had long enough to complete their mission and decide that they’ll go to Monte Carlo themselves to find the penguins and take the super-plane back to New York. How did they get to Europe from the African savannah? They walked (presumably) to the coast and then they swam. Snorkeled, actually. No, don’t question it. You’ll only get a headache. Just go with it. Tagging along are King Julian (Cohen), Maurice (Cedric) and Mort (Richter) who are now joined at the hip with the New Yorkers.

Anyway, things go horribly wrong and the appearance of a lion, a zebra, a hippo and a giraffe inside a posh casino causes a bit of a stir. This sets the French animal control expert Captain DuBois (McDormand) – the principality apparently having no animal control of their own that they have to import it from another country – on the case. DuBois has always wanted to mount the head of a lion on her wall to join the other creatures that have crossed her path to complete her collection and she’ll stop at nothing to get what she wants, including singing Edith Piaf standards. Yes I know- it’s horrible.

The animals, having hooked up with the penguins and the monkeys, manage to escape the clutches of DuBois but crash the super-plane in the process. Fleeing for their very lives, they manage to sneak aboard a circus train to blend in; Vitaly the Tiger (Cranston), the leader of the circus animals, is reluctant to let them aboard but after Gia the Leopard (Chastain) convinces him that the refugees are indeed circus animals themselves, bolstered by the less-than-smart seal Stefano (Short). The circus has a shot at an American tour if they can impress a promoter in London to finance it. However, the circus has fallen upon hard times the only way to get the animals to New York is to buy the circus from the owner, which the penguins do using their ill-gotten gains at the casino. However, it’s going to take a lot of work to get this circus back in shape. It might be more than even Alex’ can-do attitude can accomplish.

Some of the elements that had left me cold about the first two movies remain – most glaringly, the animation. While I don’t think every CGI animated feature needs to attempt to be photorealistic, this is just plain badly animated. If you think mid-90s videogame style works in the second decade of the 21st century, we really need to have a talk. The animals have few expressions and this looks decidedly dumbed down for the Cartoon Network crowd.

Considering the star power here, the voice acting is fairly by the numbers. Short is a bit over-the-top as Stefano but actually injects a little emotion where it is sorely needed; likewise for Chastain who is a little more subtle than the Canadian comic. It all comes together in the circus sequences which are dream-like, brightly colored, and entertaining (not to mention fun). They are frankly the most enjoyment I’ve gotten in this series, which has been not high on my list of animated features to be honest.

However, the story is a vast improvement over the first two. It gives us a recognizable villain and some conflict. There is also a bit of emotional resonance that was lacking in the first movie. Yes I know kids will be thrilled by the bright colors and blank faces of the talking animals, but for once adults who have to go see it with their progeny won’t be squirming in their seats and checking their watches.

REASONS TO GO: So far, the best of the series. Circus sequences genuinely fun and colorful.

REASONS TO STAY: Animation is still clunky compared to other major franchises.

FAMILY VALUES: While there’s a bit of rude humor and some fairly tame action sequences, otherwise this is plenty fine for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The style of the animal-led circus echoes that of Cirque du Soleil, which features no animals whatsoever.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100. The reviews are mixed but mostly on the positive side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Greatest Show on Earth

EDITH PIAF LOVERS: One of her most beloved songs, “Non, je ne regrette rien” is sung by Captain DuBois to her injured men during the hospital scene, the power of the music healing them of their wounds. It is listed on the official soundtrack as being sung by Frances McDormand but it sounds suspiciously like Piaf singing it.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: JCVD