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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Into the Woods


Emily Blunt and James Corden are uncertain how critics are going to take their new movie.

Emily Blunt and James Corden are uncertain how critics are going to take their new movie.

(2014) Musical (Disney) Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Daniel Huttlestone, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Lilla Crawford, Tracy Ullman, Johnny Depp, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Annette Crosby, Frances de la Tour, Simon Russell Beale, Joanna Riding, Richard Glover, Pamela Betsy Cooper. Directed by Rob Marshall

We all of us grow up with fairy tales. The works of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson are known to us if for no other reason than the Disney animations based on them.

In 1986 legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim took the characters from a number of different fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and turned it into a Broadway musical. The thing got rave reviews, a legion of fans and a boatload of Tony Awards. It is revived regularly to this day. Now Disney is taking it to the big screen and has enlisted Rob Marshall who was successful doing the same for Chicago.

\In a small village on the edge of a dark and deep forest lies a village in which lies a Baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt). They are basically good and decent people who yearn to have a child of their own but they can’t seem to make it work. Little Red Riding Hood (Crawford) stops by their shop and begs for bread to give to her ailing grandmother (Crosby). The good-hearted couple and Red takes a lot more than they bargained for.

They are then accosted by the Witch (Streep) who lives next door who informs them that their line is cursed because the Baker’s father (Beale) stole some magic beans from the Witch’s garden. Dear old dad fled and left the Baker on his own to run the business. However there’s a way out – if the Baker can gather a cow as white as snow, cloth as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold, she can create a spell that will lift the curse and allow them to have children. There is a deadline however for the spell to work.

Elsewhere Cinderella (Kendrick) lives with her Stepmother (Baranski) and that lady’s two daughters – Florinda (Blanchard) and Lucinda (Punch) from a previous marriage – and is being generally ridiculed and abused by the three women. She longs to go to the King’s Ball but that isn’t going to happen; the girl is basically dressed in rags but a gown is required. She is met in the forest by Prince Charming (Pine) who notices the girl’s plucky courage at walking in the woods by herself.

Young Jack (Huttlestone) is somewhat dense and something of a dreamer. His mom (Ullman) is exasperated with the boy; they are very poor and the harvest was bad, their milk cow Milky White wasn’t giving milk and there simply won’t be enough food to last them through the winter. She tells him that he must sell the cow at the market in the village and sadly, he leads his only friend away to market.

Jack and the Baker meet up in the woods and the latter convinces the former to exchange the cow for some beans he had in his pocket which the Baker convinces Jack are magic beans. Jack takes the beans, the Baker takes the cow and when Jack’s mother finds out she furiously chucks the beans away. Turns out that those beans that were the magic beans the Baker’s father stole and had left in his hunting jacket that he’d left behind and which the Baker now wore into the woods. A giant beanstalk grows and you know what happens after that.

Actually, you know most of what happens up until about the middle of the story. Then things start going sideways. Happily ever afters are relatively rare in this or any other world and there are consequences for the things that we do and they aren’t always pleasant ones.

Marshall knows how to bring big production values to his stage adaptations and he utilizes them here. While the movie was mostly filmed on sets, the woods actually look like woods (the set was so realistic that Pine and Blunt got lost in the woods and had to be rescued by a production assistant). The singing which was mostly pre-recorded is also quite adequate, particularly by Streep who has an excellent set of pipes as we learned from Mamma Mia. In fact her performance as the witch is one of the standouts here; she gives a character who is ostensibly wicked depth and feeling, making her a more sympathetic creature than perhaps she has any right to be. Blunt, as the Baker’s wife, is flawed and makes mistakes but she has a wonderful heart and really tugs at the heartstrings late in the film. She also has some pretty fine chemistry with Corden.

Pine and Magnussen both provide comedy relief in the form of a song called “Agony” which involves much posing by a waterfall. We are reminded once again that fairy tales – and Disney for that matter – are all about the princess for a reason. In fact, most of the musical numbers are staged well, although the general complaint that I have with Sondheim is that he tends to overwork his musical themes to death and that is certainly the case here.

The juvenile actors are a little bit less satisfactory. While Crawford is adequate, Huttlestone overacts and sings like he’s in a junior high school play. I normally don’t like taking shots at young actors but it really was distracting from the overall film and lessened my enjoyment of it.

If you come into the theater expecting Once Upon a Time or Galavant from ABC (a subsidiary of Disney) you’re going to be shocked. The tone here is dark, very dark – particularly in the second act. There is some violence, people do get killed (sometimes onscreen as we watch) and people deal with grief, cheating spouses and imminent peril from a very pissed-off giant.

Nonetheless this is still more entertaining than I expected it to be, given that Marshall’s track record since Chicago has been pretty uneven. It also doesn’t have the magic I hoped it would have, given the love that the musical has enjoyed for decades. It’s good enough to recommend, but not good enough to rave over.

REASONS TO GO: Decent performances and some unexpected twists and turns. Fairly strong representation of the Broadway show.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A few disturbing images, a suggestive scene involving adultery and some adult thematic material as well as fantasy action and peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ironically, Emily Blunt who plays a woman unable to have a baby was pregnant during the shoot.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Enchanted
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Two Faces of January