“The Secret Life of Pets” and the Ingredients of a Good Kids’ Movie

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I felt completely out-of-place when I went to go see “The Secret Life of Pets” on opening day.

And not because I tend to go see movies alone because I like being able to sit down by myself and observe the movie in my own way – but because the theatre was essentially just me and a whole lot of excited kids with their parents waiting to see the latest from Illumination Entertainment, the studio behind “Despicable Me” and those now-iconic little screaming yellow plagues on our good nation. Luckily, everyone was too enamoured with the antics on-screen to really care about why a lone male twenty-something was seeing a kid’s movie in the middle of the day.

The Secret Life of Pets” seems like Illumination’s bright and glossy attempt to make something more akin to top-tier animated movies from the likes Pixar, or DreamWorks on a good day. In fact, a lot of comparisons can be made between “Pets” and Pixar’s venerable “Toy Story” series. The normal, peaceful life of Woody Max the dog (Louis C.K.) is thrown into chaos by the arrival of Buzz Lightyear Duke, another dog (Eric Stonestreet). When circumstances force the pair out of the house and into the wild streets of New York, they’ll have to overcome their disagreements to get back to Andy their owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). Along the way they’ll be helped by fellow pets and opposed by abandoned toys stray pets, lead by Sid Snowball the bunny (voiced by the frustratingly obnoxious and insanely overused human shtick that is Kevin Hart). While the premise of the story isn’t anything too original or new to the genre, the stark similarities are hard to deny.

All things considered, “Pets” was still an okay movie to sit through. Unlike some past Illumination movies, this one was not painful to sit through as a non-child. While I never laughed, or felt much of anything, during the film’s runtime, I was never bored. I even found some of the pets’ antics to be quite cute and charming. I liked how the cat, Chloe (Lake Bell), was always trying to sit in things like a cat would, and the vocal performances overall were very well done – but “Pets” lacked the true emotional heart, charm or characterization to make me care about these pets beyond their placement in danger, or the feeling of being away from home. The middle of the movie is essentially a glorified montage of comic and action set pieces, with barely any time given to the characters except for some rushed exposition. At best, “Pets” is an enjoyable kids movie that won’t make parents roll their eyes too much, and the fact there isn’t too much fodder for children to endlessly imitate to annoyance (à la the pestilent sloth from 2014’s “The Croods“) is a godsend.

Even as I sorted through my mixed thoughts and feelings regarding “Pets”, I wondered how much of it was simply a case of me not being the target audience for the kind of humour and story it was pushing. I don’t consider myself a comedy snob, and I certainly don’t expect every funny movie to be “The Nice Guys“. I thought “Deadpool” was great and that movie was 60 percent dick jokes. Hell, I even think “Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law” is hilarious, a humour best described as ‘a bunch of random shit happening at a rapid pace’, so I can’t say I hated the Looney Tunes-esque slapstick on display, or some of the dog butt jokes. But none of it really clicked. Perhaps it was the lack of character to the jokes, as none of it had the personality that the Chloe the Cat sight gags had; or maybe it was the complete outlandish-ness of the action. I remember “Toy Story” having some intense action, but the situations were mostly just normal situations seen through the eyes of a tiny toy – none of the perceived action in that film involved anything as ludicrous as a bus hijacking or truck explosion.

A kids’ movie doesn’t need to have some teachable lesson. It just needs to place its emphasis on characters and story, and not assume that a child can’t enjoy or appreciate a movie without a barrage of stupid jokes, action scenes and pandering gimmicks.

However, I also think that it’s not out-of-place to prefer better, even when it comes to child-oriented entertainment. No, that does not mean I expect every single animated movie to be a socio-political issues charged romp like “Zootopia” or a tear-jerker like “Up.” But it does mean that I expect less dumbed-down chaos like last year’s “Minions“. Illumination’s next work is an animal singing movie called “Sing“, and at this point it looks to sit at the same table as “Pets“. While it seems like it may have heart since it deals in underdog characters attempting to prove that they’re worthy of being singing stars or whatever, especially one pig housewife who seems to be going through a “my dreams have died” mid-life crisis, there’s every chance that it could also just be an excuse to have wacky animals sing Top 40 pop songs.

It’s because of movies like that that I look forward to movies like Disney’s “Moana” and Laika’s “Kubo and the Two Strings“. Both of these appear to have the notable qualities of a good kids’ movie – both deal in interesting and somewhat unfamiliar subjects (Polynesian mythology in the former and Japanese folklore in the latter), and both have the potential to expose children to a new and expanded world, while also being colorful and fun. I doubt either aims to convey a powerful message like “Zootopia“, and that’s fine – a kids’ movie doesn’t need to have some teachable lesson. It just needs to place its emphasis on characters and story, and not assume that a child can’t enjoy or appreciate a movie without a barrage of stupid jokes, action scenes and pandering gimmicks.

The best kinds of children’s movies don’t talk down to children. They present a full story with full characters in a fun and colorful way, with the jokes and action being sprinkles on the top. If they teach a child something, that’s great. But the key ingredient to a brilliant kids movie is an actual story with meaning; one that encourages a child to think beyond what’s on the screen, and sticks with them long after the credits roll.

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