Not very illuminating
Here we have the perfect specimen of an Illumination production. By “perfect,” I don’t mean that it’s a flawless, high-quality movie; quite the contrary. I don’t mean it’s the best film by the studio, either. Rather, it perfectly encapsulates the strengths and weaknesses of Illumination’s template for animated films.
The movie—an original story from the only animation studio to reliably make such projects profitable—grossed a staggering $885 million at the box office against a $75 million budget. It’s a stupid, wacky film that is still pretty satisfying. It’s a well-oiled visual set piece assembly line. Troublesome features like “character” and “story” are relegated to the background, but the animation is excellent and everything hums along smoothly. Kids will undoubtedly love it (as mine did).
The story follows the affable dog, Max (Louis C.K.), on his journey to return home after being caught by local animal control. This is kicked off by a skirmish with Duke (Eric Stonestreet), the large dog recently adopted by Max’s owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). It echoes the dynamics of Toy Story, with a sprinkling of Lady and the Tramp and Oliver and Company as Max and Duke encounter a colorful ensemble of stray animals.
But such an account of the movie’s storyline is giving it too much credit. The narrative simply connects the dots between sketches and chase scenes. The characters are hardly even archetypes; apart from their physical appearances (and maybe one characteristic), none of the animals have consistent traits. For instance, there’s an old dog, a fat cat, and a falcon with sharp talons. Characters often dramatically shift their motivations or relationships in a single scene just to initiate the action—like the quasi-villain bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart), who turns on Max and Duke with virtually no preamble. For the latter moment, I actually rewound the movie to make sure I hadn’t missed some surprise revelation or twist.
The best part of the film is its opening few minutes. This montage of gags—”montage of gags” could honestly describe the entire movie—sweeps across downtown New York City in a soaring, single take, showcasing pets interacting with their owners before indulging in their titular secret lives. It’s evokes the opening sequence in Sing, and I admire Illumination’s audacity in trying to captivate us in the movie’s opening moments, even if it’s just a little bit of showmanship.
The movie grapples with serious tonal inconsistencies, another trademark of Illumination. A particularly jarring scene involves Duke trying to find his former owner, only to discover that he has passed away and a new family has moved into his old home. This distressing scene (it made my three-year old cry) is unnecessary for its ostensible goal of bringing Max and Duke closer together; it’s manipulative and cheap, and not the only one in the movie.
Despite all this, I can’t entirely resent the movie. It’s packed with fun gags and action sequences. There are a few genuinely funny moments and the pace is brisk. It wraps up around the 85-minute mark. For all the cynicism that I harbor towards Illumination, they at least manage to keep their films at 90 minutes or less most of the time, which is perfect for exhausted parents with young children.
While it’s not “good” cinema, per se, it’s something else nearly as valuable: A well-crafted kids’ romp that’s superficial but never boring. If that doesn’t encapsulate Illumination, what does?