Tagged: Albert Brooks

Box Office Democracy: The Secret Life of Pets

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how at this point in my life I’m through being cool.

I’m 32 years old, I’m engaged to the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with, and I just closed on a house. I don’t need to do things anymore because I think they make me look cool. I’m going to use clip-on sunglasses, wear flip-flops despite my giant feet looking goofy in them, and I’ll wear shorts after dark if it’s a warm evening and I feel like it. If something I like happens to be cool then that’s a great coincidence, but otherwise I’m willing to wear wrestling shirts and play needlessly complicated board games.

By the same token I’m willing to say that I wholeheartedly enjoyed The Secret Life of Pets despite it being a bit shallow from a narrative perspective, and despite the fact that at this point in Minion-mania Illumination Entertainment might be the least cool movie studio on the planet.

The Secret Life of Pets is a pretty standard hero’s journey story, plucky everydog Max (Louis C.K.) has his idyllic life disrupted by newcomer Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and the two eventually get lost in New York and a ragtag group of other pets come together to save them. It’s not the most original story in the world, but it’s a perfectly strong framework to hang 90 minutes of reliable pet humor. Dogs are earnest and dumb, cats are aloof and egotistical, and birds are surprisingly clever. I suppose a megalomaniacal rabbit and an army of neglected pets bent on the subjugation of human life is a little new, but no one strained under the narrative weight here. What shines is the jokes and more importantly, the execution.

The casting for Secret Life of Pets is impeccable, and while I usually want to resist the trend of hiring mainstream actors to do voice work (is it even a trend at this point? It’s basically a cultural norm) I can’t deny that the performances here are top notch. C.K. and Stonestreet are good enough, the former is doing a generic enough good guy persona and the latter a performance that’s 98% bumbling goofball the supporting cast is where the real gems are. Jenny Slate is a revelation as the lovesick Pomeranian who live across the street from Mac and leads the effort to return him home. She’s spunky and funny but most importantly really genuine. Slate has been bubbling just below the audience consciousness line for a while, and I hope that she can finally start breaking through with efforts like this. Albert Brooks is a legend for good reason, but I never knew I always wanted him to play a hawk with an honesty problem. He steals every scene he’s in and, most importantly, sounds nothing like Marlin from when I saw him a couple weeks back. Kevin Hart has spent the last couple years slowly winning my heart and he deserves all of that love here. It’s his trademark big over-the-top character I’ll probably see four times this year but it consistently got the biggest laughs in the theater.

There’s a moment in the second act where I thought Secret Life of Pets was finally going to try for a big emotional moment, to step above what I expect from Illumination and join the Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks upper echelon in animated storytelling. They start talking about Duke’s original owner and the life they had together and when they return to find said owner, the current occupant of the house (a cat) tells Duke that his owner has passed away. They are clearly trying to pull at the heartstrings with this revelation but the moment gets no time to breathe, feels a little out of nowhere when it comes up, and is never even referenced again. I wanted a bigger moment, I wanted to know what Duke’s original owner called him, I wanted something bigger. If you’re going to go for it commit all the way and if you aren’t going to make a real effort maybe that time would be better served with a couple more good jokes.

Box Office Democracy: Finding Dory

I am too big a fan of Pixar to be reasonably objective at this point. On this very website I wrote a rave review of The Good Dinosaur, a movie I seem to be almost completely alone on the island of people who think that was an unqualified masterpiece. I’ve given more than one passionate defense of Cars as a well-intentioned movie with a nice message about the virtue of small town America. I’m even polite enough to pretend that Cars 2 never existed. I’m a Pixar team player all the way. But I’m just not sure I’m a big fan of Finding Dory.

It’s not a bad movie, that’s not what’s wrong here, not by a long shot. It’s funny, it’s momentarily very moving, and the design work is exciting and dynamic. What it doesn’t feel is particularly original. They hit a lot of characters again, not for deeper dives (sorry) into the characters or even for fresh jokes, but to do basically the same joke over again. There’s also a couple sea lions introduced that feel an awful lot like the pelican from the first movie crossed with the seagulls, to say nothing of another luminescent predator in a dark environment coming around. I might be expecting too much from one-note characters in a children’s movie but I expect more from this studio, and I expect more from a successor to such a resounding triumph of filmmaking as Finding Nemo.

The problem I have with Finding Dory would likely be fixed with some higher stakes. Finding Nemo is a movie filled with life and death peril at every turn. Marlin and Dory are crossing the ocean and interacting with sharks and jellyfish and everything else dangerous out there. Nemo is in a fish tank waiting to be taken home by a little girl who murders every fish she gets her hands on. Those are some real life-or-death stakes. Everything feels less important this time around. Dory wants to find her family but she looks for them exclusively in a relatively safe environment. Marlin and Nemo are in pursuit but the biggest peril they ever seem to be in is when they’re trapped in a tank with a particularly boring oyster. It all just feels too breezy and light to ever feel like anyone is in any real danger and at that point, so why are we bothering to hear this story? Writer/director Andrew Stanton has two Oscars for Best Animated Feature and four nominations for screenplays so it’s hard to believe he doesn’t understand all of this much better than I do it’s just strange to see Stanton in particular and Pixar in general put out such a relatively empty film.

It might seem hollow after all those complaints, but I quite enjoyed getting to spend a little more time with Dory and Marlin. The original film was a favorite of mine and is singlehandedly responsible for my general appreciation of Ellen DeGeneres and Albert Brooks. Both are really good in this movie, DeGeneres is obviously fantastic, her performance both resembles her real world comedic style and is so in tune with the character she can really nail the quieter moments. Brooks gives a more subtle performance, Marlin says something early in the film and having him try and minimize what he said while clearly being filled with regret and needing to make amends is so subtle and so relatable. I got a little crabby with the plot but the performances and the direction are second to none.

Finding Dory is a B+/A- movie from a company I have grown accustomed to giving an easy A every time. There’s nothing wrong with it, I walked out of the theater completely delighted with the movie— but it doesn’t feel like it’s entirely living up to the standard that Disney and Pixar have set over the last few years. It would be hard to make the case that Finding Dory is a better movie than Frozen, or Inside Out, or Zootopia. Finding Dory is a far sight better than The Angry Birds movie, but that’s like saying that the worst team in the NBA would probably wreck your local college team: true, but not really the point.