Opening this weekend:
The Secret Life of Pets—When I open the garage door most evenings around six, I can hear the excited yelping and whining start. Then I walk into the house, and my dogs greet me with a joyous exuberance that, quite frankly, my human family rarely seems able to muster.
It’s always one of the best parts of my day, and the moments like it are the best parts of the new animated movie The Secret Life of Pets. The film’s key joke is that its characters—supposedly apartment-bound Manhattan pets—get out and have epic adventures of which their owners never know.
That’s a pretty good joke, and it’s a pretty enjoyable film, but the adventure we see is a bit contrived and over-plotted. It’s really the scenes, near the beginning and end, of loving interaction between pets and owners that carry an unexpected emotional weight—they can fill you with gratitude for being in a position to have nonhuman friends.
Our hero is Max (voiced by Louis CK), a little white-and-brown terrier who shares a walk-up with a young single woman. When she leaves in the morning for what must be a really high-paying job, Max passes the time, through the windows and across the fire escapes, with the neighboring pets, among them a blasé cat (Lake Bell) and a fuzzy white Pomeranian (Jenny Slate) with a crush on him.
One evening Max’s owner comes home with, horror of horrors, a new dog—Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a shaggy, intrusive mutt. They don’t hit it off at first, but when the two of them end up lost in the streets and threatened by Animal Control, they of course have no choice but to bond.
It’s at this point that The Secret Life of Pets gets in a bit over its head, with too many characters and plot points. Max and Duke fall in, for instance, with a band of homeless exotic pets living in the sewers, led by a cute but revolutionary rabble-rousing bunny, voiced by Kevin Hart in his usual tone of hilariously aggrieved indignation. Meanwhile the Pomeranian and Max’s other neighbors mount a rescue mission, eventually enlisting the aid of a falcon (Albert Brooks) and a basset hound (Dana Carvey) with wheels on his back legs.
There are also digressions involving a surreal visit to a sausage factory, and an attempt to find Duke’s previous owner. Most of these strands are strong and funny in themselves, but there are too many of them, and they encrust the movie with complications that require laborious resolution.
Two other complaints: This is the second animated kid movie I’ve seen in the last few weeks—Finding Dory was the other—that included a scene of a van with animals trapped inside it crashing off of a bridge and plunging into the water. Maybe movies aimed at this sort of demographic could consider going a bit easier on the Hal Needham-style car crash action?
And finally, this movie is one of many in the genre that continue the stereotype of the stupid and gleeful animal control officer. I get that the “Evil Dogcatcher” is a venerable archetype, but in reality these people provide an essential public service, and I’d guess that many of them are animal lovers. Also, as unfortunate as an animal in a pound may be, it’s still almost invariably better off than an animal lost in the streets, and the old idea of the happy-go-lucky stray dog or cat is, I think, pernicious—it has helped to perpetuate the idea of abandoning animals as a legitimate option. It’s time to humanely euthanize all of these clichés.
Wiener-Dog—The hapless wanderings of a domestic animal are also the basis for this very different movie, the latest from Todd Solondz.
The title character is a small, thick-bodied dachshund with a stoic face. Via unkind twists of fate and irresponsible human behavior, she falls in with a variety of wretched people. First there’s a disastrous stretch with a disagreeable older dad (Tracey Letts), younger French mom (Julie Delpy) and their sugary-voiced, obtuse, flute-playing, cancer-surviving son (Keaton Nigel Cooke). Then she’s reprieved by a self-esteem-less assistant (Greta Gerwig) from the vet’s office, and goes on a road trip with this doormat and her new sort-of-boyfriend (Kieran Culkin).
This is followed by an intermission “snipe” featuring a “Ghost Riders in the Sky”-style song, “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog,” by Marc Shaiman. This brief passage is the least excruciating part of the film.
It’s not made clear how the Wiener-Dog lands in her next home, that of a sad-sack screenwriting professor (Danny DeVito), nor how she gets from there to the home of an unhappy old woman (Ellen Burstyn) who names her “Cancer.” The Wiener-Dog is the center of some of these strands, while in others she’s little more than a perplexed observer. The only time in the movie that she takes any decisive action, it’s catastrophic.
It’s difficult for me to express how likable I found this dog, and how unlikable I found this movie. I can pretty much promise you that if you’re a mushy-brained, sentimental dog lover, you’ll despise it. I’m a mushy-brained, sentimental dog-lover, and I despised it.
But I think my dislike of Wiener-Dog didn’t derive only from my sappiness where dogs are concerned. It also has to do with the humans that Solondz creates, and the somehow self-conscious, manufactured ugliness and vapidity he imposes on them. Solondz is by no means without skills as a filmmaker—a fine eye and a superb sense of fitful comic timing—and there are grimly funny episodes and images here. But his misanthropy seems forced and unconvincing, like that of a teenager going through a “cynical” phase.
The most jolting moment in Wiener-Dog, for me, came at the end of the credits: “AMERICAN HUMANE ASSOCIATION MONITORED SOME OF THE ANIMAL ACTION. NO ANIMALS WERE HARMED DURING THOSE SCENES.” The implications of this (trademarked!) phrasing are distressing. If any movie could ever be worth harming an animal, this one sure wasn’t it.