MovieMonday: The Secret Life of Pets

This movie comes from the same people who gave us “Despicable Me,””Despicable Me 2” and last year’s financially successful but underwhelming “Minions.” Watch for “Despicable Me 3” next year.

The title is the premise — the hijinks pets get up to when their owners are away — and the result is a roller coaster of a story stuffed to the rafters with sight gags and zany action.

The story involves two dogs, recently introduced, who cannot stand each other. Then they fall into the clutches of animal control agents and then a group of bitter, sewer-dwelling pets abandoned by their owners. Then the two dogs work together (buddy movie!) in the interest of survival. Then their neighborhood friends (dogs, cats, a parakeet and a feral hawk) work together to rescue the two dogs. Mayhem ensues throughout.

Illumination Entertainment has turned out a good-looking computer animation film here. It bases its characters on stereotypes about the personalities of dogs and cats. The movie asks its viewers to suspend belief about the true nature of hawks, which is fine, but maybe goes a bit far by making a cute white bunny named Snowflake into a mean trash talker with a nasty agenda.

To be fair, though, Snowflake drives much of the film’s action, and Snowflake’s energetic voice, that of Kevin Hart, is very well done.
Two Reservations

1. Maybe this movie is too jam-packed.

Not one second goes to waste in The Secret Life, which runs for 98 minutes. The action and the dialogue rattle along at 90 mph the whole way.

In food equivalents, it’s like eating a diet of Twinkies for a month — tasty, yes, but by the end you are feeling a great big sugar high and your body’s supply of basic nutrients has been depleted.

We already have short attention spans. If we condition ourselves and our children to expect wow moments every second, we may find ourselves less able to enjoy more leisurely pleasures. Just guessing here.

2. This may not be a good movie for small children. I speak generally here of the preschool through primary-grade set.

One thing that has made Disney movies so appealing to small children is sincerity. Bambi is sincere. The Lion King is sincere. Even that scamp, short-tempered Donald Duck, is sincere. When he makes a mistake, he regrets it. When he gets in a fight, he wins. His motives are transparent, and he does not want to hurt others.

Newer animated movies from other studios have adopted more adult vibes and themes; the target demo for “The Secret Life of Pets,” to me, is anyone over the age of eight who has owned or wanted to own a pet. This is a very large potential audience.

But for the younger kids?

I saw the movie in a theater full of very young children and their parents. I laughed at some of the silliness, but I didn’t hear much childish laughter around me.

I don’t think five-year-olds are delighted by a cute bunny that turns out to have a nasty mouth, a mean streak and a willingness to threaten nice doggies with snakes and alligators. I’m not sure four-year-olds get the joke when the nice dogs defend themselves against the bad bunny by pretending that they have killed their owner with a kitchen blender. I don’t think three-year-olds are complacent about owners dumping their pets, which sounds something like parents abandoning their children.

Children are idealists. They can handle conflict, but they want the good guys to win by being, well, good. Little children, small and vulnerable as they know they are, are moved by stories of teamwork, kindness and generosity. And, to be fair, there is much of this in the pet movie.

As they mature, all children encounter and absorb a certain amount of cynicism and sarcasm. I’m not sure we do kids any favors if we cultivate these attitudes earlier rather than later.

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