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

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African Cats


African Cats

These African Cats are just a bunch of cheetahs.

(2011) Nature Documentary (DisneyNature) Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey

Nature can be a harsh mother, one whose life lessons are sometimes cruel and at other times beautiful. The world that the predator cats of Africa exist in is one that is exacting, but one in which the devotion of a mother is as fierce and beautiful as it is in the civilized world.

Layla is an aging lioness, a fierce hunter and mother to Mara, a female cub. She lives on the South bank of a river as part of the River Pride, presided over by its only male, Fang. Like Layla, Fang is a battle-scarred warrior who is beginning to show the signs of his age.

Sita is a fearless cheetah, one who is bringing up five cubs alone, as is the nature of cheetahs. They live on the Northern bank of the river. She is trying to teach her children the necessities of survival, something that is not always easy with children, especially when she has to contend with hyenas, a sometimes scarce food supply and also the lions of the region.

Kali is the father of three strapping young male lions. He rules the Northern bank of the river and now seeks to expand his territory south. He must bide his time during the rainy season as the river is crocodile-infested, but as the summer arrives and the waters recede, he moves south to take on Fang. At stake are the lives of the cubs, all of whom will be killed should Kali take over; he will then father new cubs with the lionesses. The battle for survival has begun.

As with the annual Earth Day DisneyNature documentaries, the animals are heavily anthropomorphized, the most of any of these documentaries yet. Jackson, in his spirited narration tells us what the cat moms are thinking, feeling and planning, giving them human responses to situations that might not mirror what a big cat is thinking, feeling or planning. Some of these emotions and thoughts that are ascribed to the felines can be extrapolated from their actions but others are most certainly all invention. I find that bothersome somehow, as if we’re being lied to – which is probably over-sensitivity on my part but still I can’t help feeling a little bit uncomfortable with it.

Certainly their maternal instincts are highly honed and when cubs are missing, they become obviously distraught; when the cubs are threatened, they fight like berserkers, claws and teeth savaging their opponents.

Like all of the DisneyNature documentaries, the cinematography is absolutely breathtaking. Aerial shots of the vast savannah, the river winding through it like a muddy ribbon, thousands of wildebeests migrating through the territory like ants. The close-up shots of the lions and cheetahs going about their business are nothing short of amazing – watching Sita at full speed, her muscles straining for every bit of speed is something any viewer is going to remember for a very long time. It is a kind of savage beauty that serves to further amaze us at the diversity of life on this big blue marble.

However, the harshness of life on the plains makes for a fairly depressing movie. Lions and cubs are horribly injured and killed; they shiver in the rain and bake in the sun. Some become little more than skin and bones as they slowly starve to death.

The temptation to compare this to National Geographic’s documentary The Last Lions is hard to resist. Both movies focus on lionesses struggling to protect their cubs and both feature amazing footage of lions (and in the case of African Cats, cheetahs as well) in the savannah. However, the Nat-Geo film seems to be more concerned with calling attention to the dwindling numbers of wild lions in Africa while African Cats seems more disposed towards telling a kid-friendly story, so you have to give a nod to the other film on that score.

However, I found the Kenya-filmed footage in African Cats more compelling and more spectacular thanks to Fothergill’s well-honed sense of scope. He has also filmed the documentaries Deep Blue and Earth and may very well be the best nature documentarian alive. It kind of winds up as a push.

Disney’s heart is in the right place, using Earth Day to release films about our natural environment and tell stories that are played out in it every day. I don’t really love their need to turn these beautiful creatures into characters as if they should be talking and singing in one of their animated features; the narration should be kept to a minimum in my humble opinion because after all, a picture is worth a thousand words. Pictures like these are worth infinitely more, and those in charge of these wonderful documentaries would do well to remember that.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography of the majestic African plains and its inhabitants.

REASONS TO STAY: The storyline was too anthropomorphized and depressing.

FAMILY VALUES: There really isn’t anything that would cause a parent to give pause in allowing their children to see this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: An original song by “American Idol” Season Six winner Jordin Sparks, “The World I Knew” is played over the closing credits, as the various animals that appear in the movie are identified in a humorous way.

HOME OR THEATER: The big African vistas should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Mercy (2009)

The Last Lions


The Last Lions

This lion just ain't gonna take no bull...umm, well if you look at it from a certain point of view, they actually ARE.

(2011) Nature Documentary (National Geographic) Jeremy Irons (narration). Directed by Dereck Joubert

Fifty years ago, there were nearly half a million lions in the wild. That number is down to somewhere between twenty and fifty thousand, depending on whose estimates you believe. Current estimates have the wild lion population disappearing, possibly within the lifetime of children currently living.

They are being driven out of their natural habitats by the movement of human expansion on the African continent. They are being hunted by farmers trying to protect their cattle from attacks by the big cats; they are also being crowded into places where their food supply is dwindling and where they are competing with other ferocious predators for game.

Irons’ narration tells the tale of Ma di Tau (translated as Mother of Lions in the local language), a wild lioness in the Okavango Delta region of Botswana. She is a single mother of three adorable cubs. Her territory has been invaded by a pride from the North, moving down due to human incursion. She and her mate are attacked; her mate is grievously injured and the mother and her cubs are forced to cross a crocodile-infested stream to get to Duba Island, a large grassy atoll in the river. In rainy season it can be wet and marshy; in the summers the river slows down to a trickle, inviting other predators to visit.

There’s also a largish herd of water buffalo that are the size of VW Beetles and twice as ornery. One in particular, the herd leader who is marked with a noticeable scar across his face, fears nothing or no lion. His horns are nightmarishly lethal, and without a pride to help her in the hunt, Ma di Tau is reduced to nearly suicidal frontal assaults before devising tactics made from desperation; she desperately needs the meat to feed her cubs and if she doesn’t feed them soon, they’ll starve.

Director Joubert and his producer/partner/wife Beverly live on Duba Island and have been naturalist documentarians for a quarter of a century – in fact, Disney used footage they shot to help guide their animators for The Lion King.

Their footage is phenomenal. We get as up close to lions so much so that we become part of their pride, privy to their daily routines and lives. Nature documentaries have a tendency to anthropomorphize their subjects – give them human qualities and traits. This one doesn’t quite resist the temptation, often musing on what Ma di Tau is thinking and feeling through Irons’ solid narration. However some of the prose he’s given to recite is a little bit on the purple side.

There is no sentimentality here. Lions act like lions and when their territory is invaded, a struggle to the death ensues and it is a bloody and savage one. Cubs, unable to fend for themselves, are put in danger and don’t always escape it unscathed. Lightning ignites grass fires; things are eaten by crocodiles or gored by water buffalo. In short, life on the savannah is a harsh one.

But there is also love and affection and while not as much of that is shown in the eagerness of Joubert to make his point about the dwindling population of the magnificent beasts it is nonetheless present, particularly in Ma di Tau’s fierce devotion to her cubs and her willingness to do whatever it takes to protect them. The playfulness is rarely glimpsed but it is glimpsed.

There is definitely a message here and it’s a somber one – the kings of the jungle are disappearing from the face of the earth. It is happening slowly, but when you consider that it only took half a century to kill off nearly 90% of the lion population in the wild, the urgency of their protection becomes clear. The film provides websites and text numbers for donations to an organization dedicated to protecting these big cats, and hopefully you’ll take advantage of them as well (you can get info on their website which you can access by clicking on the picture above).

As documentaries go, this is a solid one. It lacks the grandeur of DisneyNature’s Earth or the humor of March of the Penguins but it tells its story simply and effectively. It also sends its message clearly and that is all you can ask of a documentary.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed and narrated. Some of the up-close shots of the lions are breathtaking.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie pulls no punches in describing that it’s a jungle out there, even in the savannah; the faint of heart be warned.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of animals mauling and killing one another which might get the kiddies a little upset.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jeremy Irons voiced the villainous Scar in Disney’s The Lion King.

HOME OR THEATER: Gorgeously photographed African savannah worth seeing in all its glory on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Hop

The Princess and the Frog


The Princess and the Frog

For every princess, there must be a prince, frog or not.

(2009) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Anika Noni Rose, Terrance Howard, Oprah Winfrey, John Goodman, Keith David, Jenifer Lewis, Jim Cummings, Bruno Campos, Randy Newman, Emeril Lagasse, Jennifer Cody, Peter Bartlett, Michael-Leon Wooley. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

Once upon a time, all animation was hand drawn in a painstaking process that took years for each feature to be completed. However, computers not only made the process faster, allowing for more animated features to be created every year, those who were more programmers than artists created an onslaught of computer animation that had little soul and nothing much to recommend them while still doing great box office. The days of hand-drawn animation seemingly at an end, Disney shut down its pen and ink division and decided to go full time to computer animation. When their own in-house efforts yielded less-than-stellar results, Disney wound up buying Pixar (whose films they had distributed from the get-go) and installing their chief, John Lassiter, in charge of Disney’s entire animated division, including Pixar.

But Lassiter did a funny thing for a computer guy; he re-instated the traditional animation department, hiring back many of the animators who had been let go. Their first effort is this take on “The Frog Prince” only with a distaff sensibility.

Tiana (Rose) is a young waitress in jazz-age New Orleans with a dream. She wants to open up her own restaurant where she can serve up her daddy’s gumbo recipe, with just a dash of hot sauce. Her daddy (Howard) died in the Great War, leaving her and her momma (Winfrey) to care for each other. Tiana’s ditzy best friend, Charlotte LaBouff (Cody) and her doting dad (Goodman) are out to get Charlotte a prince, and when one drops in her lap, she’s ecstatic.

That Prince is Naveen (Campos) from the impoverished country of Moldonia. He needs to wed a rich lady to help restore the empty coffers of the Moldonian treasury but quite frankly, Naveen is more interested in playing music and letting Le Bon Tomps Roullez in the French Quarter. He also attracts the attention of the evil and nefarious Dr. Facillier (David) a.k.a. the Shadow Man, who casts a voodoo spell on the Prince, turning him into a frog while his soul is transferred into the body of Naveen’s manservant/butler/attaché Lawrence (Bartlett) who would then hand over control of the money and Moldonia to the evil Doc.

In desperation, Naveen tries to find a princess to kiss him and restore him to his former shape, but mistakes Tiana, dressed up for the engagement party of her friend Charlotte, for a princess and the kiss only turns Tiana into a fellow amphibian. Chased by Dr. Facillier who needs the frog prince to refill his magical potion that keeps Lawrence in the form of Naveen, Tiana and Naveen head to the swamp where they meet up with allies of their own; the practical firefly Ray (Cummings), the trumpet-playing crocodile Louis (Wooley) and his buddies (Lagasse, Newman) as well as Mama Odie (Lewis), a voodoo priestess who perhaps alone can reverse the curse of Dr. Facillier.

Is this a return to the form that saw Disney create classic after classic in the 90s? Yes and no. While this doesn’t quite measure up to Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, it’s much better than recent attempts such as Home on the Range or Brother Bear. As a matter of fact, while it doesn’t hit the high notes that Pixar’s movies tend to, it’s still a pretty solid effort.

Rose makes for a feisty princess, the kind that Disney can easily market not only to young African American girls but to the legions of princess-happy tots whose parents deposit hundreds of millions of dollars into Disney’s coffers. The cast has a great deal of energy, particularly Cummings, Cody and Wooley, and the movie barrels along at a jolly pace.

The New Orleans locale is inspired, albeit this is something of a fantasy Big Easy, but it’s recognizable nonetheless. New Orleans is the kind of city that has enough mystery and romance that other cities can only hope for; only New York and San Francisco among American cities have the kind of cachet that the Crescent City possesses, and the jazz age New Orleans is something special again.

There are some passable musical numbers but oddly enough, many of them bring the movie to a grinding halt as the characters go into a song and dance routine that temporarily halts the story’s progression. Personally, I might have cut two or three of the numbers, but I might be in the minority on this one; certainly kids will love the brassy, jazzy music that has a touch of modern hip-hop, gospel and even rock and roll on the edge. This isn’t your mommy and daddy’s Disney.

And yet, in a very real way, it is. This is very much the kind of movie that Disney was making ten years ago to great success and had it been released then, it might well be considered a classic on the level of, say, The Little Mermaid. Even so, it is better than most of the Disney releases before and after that incredible run in the last decade, and marks a welcome return of an art form that was certainly on the endangered list. For that accomplishment alone, regardless of the social implications of an African-American princess (which are certainly important in their own right), this movie deserves a respectful audience, who will be rewarded with a rollicking good time.

WHY RENT THIS: The first hand-drawn Disney animation in six years is worth celebrating; it is also a return to form for an artform that has widely lost its luster with the explosion of computer animation which Pixar helped usher in.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Two many musical numbers stops the films momentum dead in its tracks from time to time.

FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences – c’mon, it’s DISNEY, you know.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Not only is this the first Disney film to feature an African-American princess, it is the first to feature a left-handed princess (Rose is also left-handed and she requested that the animators make her character the same).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray includes featurettes on the history of Disney Princesses and how the newest one fits in. There is also an interactive game for the kids, as well as a music video of Ne-Yo’s “Never Knew I Needed You.” All in all, chock full of goodies as is the way Disney normally does things.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $267M on a production budget of $105M; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Morning Glory