Following hot on the heels of Finding Dory‘s June release, Universal Studios released its summer animated blockbuster in early June. With the help of some catchy marketing, which Universal excelled at with their previous blockbuster hit Despicable Me, Secret Life of Pets was on a short list of movies for me to see this summer. I was excited to see all of those cute and funny scenes from the trailers showing various dogs, cats, birds, and other pets indulging in humanoid activities once their owners left for work. The idea of talking animals with the star-studded cast of Louis CK, Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, and Jenny Slate was just too fun to miss!
Unfortunately, these fun moments that poked fun at or accentuated real pet behavior all felt recycled by the time you watched them at the theaters. All of the best jokes were cherry-picked from the film and put into trailers, and most of these fun moments felt as though they had been crammed hastily into the opening act. The whole plot of The Secret Life of Pets (let’s call it SLOP for short) was not, in fact, to explore the “secret life” of pets as the title and marketing materials suggested, but to go on a long drawn out story of camaraderie formed through mutual experience. Caution, mild spoilers regarding the story arc below:
Guess the movie: the main character is happy with their owner and the special bond that they share. Suddenly, a new character is added and appears to threaten the “special” bond between the main character and the owner, so the main character tries to get rid of the threat. But our main character is unsuccessful and is accidentally dragged off and lost far from home with their rival. The two must work together to get home and become friends in the process, learning to share the owner and create a different kind of special bond. Meanwhile, all of the dumb humans don’t notice anything, despite the shenanigans left in their wake. Oh, and there’s a subplot with some scary looking critters who seem evil, but really just want to be loved. The non-human characters even drive a car!
Answer: Toy Story! and now, apparently, also Secret Life of Pets. Only this time, it’s pets instead of toys and instead of one minor traffic collision in a quiet suburb (which, let’s face it, is really the Sid’s dog’s fault) in Toy Story, SLOP opted for a gigantic Spider-Man-esque Brooklyn Bridge pileup and car-splosion that would cause millions of dollars of damage and become a major news story. Are we really supposed to believe that would go unnoticed? The scale of the destruction was too large and every trope was ripped off from the animated uber-classic, Toy Story. Unfortunately, SLOP just couldn’t deliver enough new ideas to seem like anything but an inferior copy.
Overall, it’s entertaining, the art is fun and captivating, and the cast is spot-on, but the plot seems lazy and the level of care we saw in Despicable Me or just about any Pixar film ever released just was not there. This is definitely more of a movie for kids than it is a film for the whole family. Nonetheless, Secret Life of Pets had some truly funny moments, and it’s fun enough to go see and enjoy. I’d just probably save a few bucks and go to a matinee. Rating: 6 of 10.
Disney’s done it again. And I know we really shouldn’t be surprised by now. Especially since I’m now pretty late to the game on this review. Just this past week the animated mega-hit crossed the Billion dollar threshold in worldwide box office earnings, moving into the 26th highest-grossing film of all time. Sure,these “highest-grossing” lists don’t quite mean what they used to, what with 3-D ticket pricing and much higher rates of movie going worldwide, but still cracking the 7-figure threshold is no small achievement. Zootopia has also been raking in critical acclaim, sitting at a stellar 98% on RottenTomatoes, and already jockeying for the Best Animated Film Oscar for next February. But does it live up to the hype?
Yup. Zootopia is really a clever movie. Not that talking animals are anything new, and the fictional megacity is pretty commonplace in the Hunger Games era. But what this movie achieves is authenticity. The creators managed to give this world come cultural history, highlighting prejudices within the population and hinting at larger themes of equity and identity in a seemingly utopic society. The impressive thing about Zootopia is that it manages to mingle these serious themes into a genuinely interesting story without it feeling too preachy. The metaphors were never heavy-handed and the allegories weren’t so over-the-top that it distracted from the fun plot. Throw in some great voice acting from the likes of Jason Bateman, and some funny (if bizarre) jokes for the adults watching, like a nudist colony and Godfather references, and you have the perfect formula for success. I do wish that the trailers didn’t give away the whole sloth scene, because that really would have stolen the show had it still been a surprise. Special shout-out to Nate Torrence as Clawhauser, the hilariously doofy leopard who ran the front desk at the police station, who was definitely my favorite character.
By now, Disney has perfected the art and will likely continue the pattern of releasing a Disney Animation film in the early spring to avoid competing with their frenemies (Pixar) who own the big summer release. I hear there’s even a chance of a Zootopia 2 on the way. I’m not sure how I feel about that, given how nicely this wrapped up, but the world they created in Zootopia was big and vibrant, so I suppose there’s room for more stories. Overall, Zootopia is a good movie that’s sufficiently fun for the whole family. Like Frozen and its numerous Pixar predecessors, this will quickly join the pantheon of elite animated films. Go watch it. Rating: 9 of 10
I was fortunate enough to get to watch all five of these nominees at once at a local movie theater that was running a special feature. Naturally, the theater is kind of artsy, often featuring critically acclaimed indie films and other award winners. This kind of place attracts a certain audience, *cough* hipsters *cough*, which impacts the viewing experience, favoring the weird and quirky. Now, I only mention all of this because the audience had a really weird vibe watching all of these and laughed in some really dark places. Animated shorts shouldn’t be so grim. Remember Pixar’s chess guy before Toy Story? That’s what I want.
Bear Story: This Chilean animated short was beautifully made. The detail work and style choice of following most of the story through the Bear’s mechanical diorama was very clever. It is rich in allegory and is certainly heartfelt in a meaningful way. During their Oscar acceptance speech, the creators alluded to the story as an allegory for political prisoners being detained by oppressive regimes, which I didn’t fully get, but it still did a nice job relaying the story with sound and creative animation. Blorg! and Academy Pick: Best Animated Short Film
Prologue: Uh, what??? Why can’t animated films be happy? I feel like they are supposed to. And this is the opposite. It is bad. Horrible. Don’t watch it. The first 40 seconds are nice because the sketch style opening on the flowers against the white background was very nice. But the rest of it was just disturbing and gross. A bunch of naked dudes stabbed each other in the junk in front of a little kid. It was just awful. I don’t understand why people think that’s a good idea. Gross and disturbing. Don’t watch it. Ew.
Sanjay’s Super Team: The only nominee that is actually uplifting. But it’s a Pixar product so don’t be surprised. A cute story about a boy whose imagination blends his favorite superhero TV show with his father’s Hindu prayer in a way that brings the two together. Of course you should watch it. It was also one of only two nominees that I actually liked. My runner-up pick.
We Can’t Live Without the Cosmos: I almost liked this one. This wordless Russian short film is the story of two astronauts (either brothers or childhood friends that may or may not love one another) going through training. The bond between the two is well-developed and both the happy and sad moments really do tell a complete story. The ending just didn’t really make sense. I was not sure how to interpret it, and I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be a happy or sad ending. It was good, but not worthy of winning.
World of Tomorrow: Also horrible. It’s on Netflix, so go ahead. Watch it. I saw all of these short films in a theater at once, so it was relatively easy to compare them all. This one had all of the artsy hipsters in the theater laughing, which kind of upset me. I don’t think it’s supposed to be funny. A shocking and, at times, disturbing presentation of the future, this short film relied upon expository dialogue and a weird stick-figure based, twitchy animation style. It had some interesting commentary on cloning, but the weirdness of the main narrator and blasé comments about death, destruction, and the cruelty of the events described made for an aggressively pessimistic film. I did not like it and was disturbed by the use of a child to portray so much of this morbid ambivalence.
Dear Blorgons, welcome to my first true post! Now that the site has the basic formatting set up, it’s time to fill in some content. First thing on the docket is: The Good Dinosaur (2015).
Before watching The Good Dinosaur, I had heard some of the rumors about production difficulties and delays, but I was still pretty optimistic. This is the same studio that has released a string of stellar animated movies, each one pushing the bounds of storytelling and creativity in movie animation. Pixar, the critical wunderkind and eternal house of ideas, has delivered three iconic Toy Story movies, Bug’s Life, Up, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc, The Incredibles, and Wall-E, not to mention their most recent entry into their great pantheon: Inside Out. I came in with some trepidations, but with the bar so high, there is only so much I was going to temper my expectations.
The opening of the film was strong. In the first thirty seconds, we see the basic premise of the movie laid out for us: what if the meteor that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago just missed Earth? And what if a few million years later, the dinosaurs were the sentient creatures capable of speech, agriculture, and emotion? The main characters are introduced, as two brontosaurus frontiersmen watch their eggs hatch and the protagonist, Arlo, and his two siblings are born. Arlo’s struggles as the runt of his litter growing up in an agricultural setting make the story simultaneously relatable and intriguing. He runs from his problems, much to the chagrin of his parents and siblings, all of whom take to the frontier life pretty easily, making the small and weak Arlo feel left out.
What is most notable about the beginning of the film, which is by far the strongest part, is the care and detail that went into developing the premise and the animation itself. Watching the dinosaurs plant their seeds and maintain a farm with their tails, long necks, and lack of hands showed that the creators had really imagined their world completely, making the plight of a family farm less about being a dinosaur and more about hard work and struggling to make ends meet.
Another strength throughout the entirety of the movie was the animation. Beautiful landscapes seemed to push the limits of computer animation, providing extremely life-like water movements, plant life, and other natural features. The detail was evident in large, panning mountain shots on Arlo’s adventure. Swirling water, angry storm clouds with lightning, fields of fireflies, and wind blowing in the grass were captivating. The simplistic cartoonified dinosaurs seemed almost out of place in comparison. Perhaps the animators worried that a dinosaur as lifelike as its surroundings would be too scary for children, but I almost wonder if the elegant scenery was too much, creating a style break within their own scenes – though, admittedly, that is a fairly minor complaint.
Unfortunately, much of the innovation stops there. The remaining hour and fifteen minutes of the movie had some touching and well-done portions, but most of those were overshadowed by distractingly bizarre moments and a strikingly high number of scenes that felt like they had been lifted out of previous movies.
For the first time I can remember, Pixar did not seem to deliver a story from scratch, but seemed to have taken a hodgepodge of “tried and true” story elements and lumped them together.
The most notable parallels were with the Lion King. *Spoiler* The emotional loss of Arlo’s father, swept away by a rampaging flood right after tossing his son to safety, was very similar to Mufasa’s iconic death scene. Arlo blames himself and ends up swept away on a path of self-discovery with his pet human, Spot. The Lion King parallels continue throughout the movie, as Arlo encounters three Archaeopteryx/raptors who are direct copies of the hyenas from the Lion King. It felt like even their lines were the same. They even had a “look to the stars” scene where Arlo hallucinates that his dead father is giving him guidance. This is after he’s fallen into a bramble patch – just like Simba.
The remaining plot elements were either stolen from Finding Nemo, Ice Age, or were so bizarre that I’m surprised they made a final cut. From Finding Nemo, the young runt is trying to find their way home, the T-Rex that gave Arlo was basically Gil from the fishtank, and even the pterodactyls were similar to the gulls in their desire to eat the main character’s friend. The reversal of speaking animals (in this case, dinosaurs) with grunting humans seemed like a copy from the Ice Age, whose original premise involves returning a pet human to its grunting prehistoric tribe.
But the worst part is that all that was left to make the story unique were its weird quirks that just didn’t quite work. The strange acid trip scene from fermented fruit, the unexplained neurotic triceratops, and the pterodactyls cult-like obsession with the storm. There may have been potential there, but the jokes either fell flat or were too outlandish to really resonate with the audience. I had a whole bunch of other questions that were never answered: where were all of the other dinosaurs? Why do there seem to be only ten dinosaurs in the entire world? And why do dinosaurs not eat each other? Do they only eat mammals? Why are humans acting like dogs? Couldn’t they be grunting and presume that communication with the dinosaur wasn’t working without Spot howling to the moon and panting?
Overall rating: this movie had real promise and some truly magical moments, but there were too many borrowed plot points and cheap tricks for this movie to get a coveted Blorg! Blog endorsement. This movie is worth a one-time view, as long as you temper your expectations and focus on the landscapes. With likable protagonists and an intriguing premise, it’s not a bad movie, but it doesn’t live up to the usual Pixar level of excellence. The primary rewatch value is for young kids who don’t mind formulaic stories and won’t notice the weaker points in the plot.