The Secret Life of Pets - too violent and negative racial subtext
What's It About
The overall premise is basically Toy Story for pets, letting us see what our pets get up to when we leave for the day. The film is set in Manhattan and focuses on a small dog named Max, whose life is upended when his owner brings home a new dog named Duke. Max and Duke are at odds from the beginning and through their fight they end up lost in the city. They are eventually chased by a gang of discarded pets called the Flushed Pets and their apartment dwelling friends must join in the search to bring them home.
Is It Any Good
I saw the previews months ago and was really looking forward to it, but the movie left me disappointed for several reasons. The first is that it was strangely boring in the middle third. The action was moving along, but it felt repetitive and I found my mind wandering and I started to wonder how much longer it would last. The characters and their motivations are also poorly drawn. Even though Woody, Buzz et. al. are only toys, they have clear personalities and you care deeply about their fate. I'm a pet lover and should have been able to develop the same investment in our two dog protagonists, but I didn't. Max was too whiney and entitled in the beginning (a fault that lessened my enjoyment of Arlo in the Good Dinosaur) and Duke, at the start, was overly aggressive, verging on scary.
The role of the Flushed Pets also soured me on the film. Perhaps the timing of film's release is simply unfortunate, but there are clear racial stereotypes behind the sewer dwelling discarded pets and the rhetoric of their group is clearly meant to mimic "black power" iconography - "Revoluntion forever, domestication never" is their battle cry. The Flushed Pet leader (a bunny) speaks with a clear urban dialect, made even more obvious in a scene where Max and Duke try to blend in with the group and their language starts to be peppered with grammar and slang meant to mimic that dialect. The bunny's main henchman is a pig named Tattoo who is literally covered in tattoos and sports earrings and a nose ring. The Flushed Pets agenda is the destruction of all mankind and there is a scene when they ask Max and Duke to describe the supposedly bloodily murder of their former owners. Allegory and metaphor are certainly fine in children's films but this was all a bit much. And the moral of the whole thing (scary urban animals chasing our friendly domesticate heroes) is the opposite of what we need to hear right now.
Neither child appeared to consciously pick up on the subtext of the film, which is good. There was no real bad language, but lots of characters calling each other idiot and stupid and the now de rigeuer poop jokes. In terms of violence there were lots of chases and pet in jeopardy moments, particularly in the final third. There is also (SPOILER ALERT) a fairly violent death for one of the Flushed Pets in the middle of the film which is disturbingly played for laughs.
The big kid saw it on vacation with his grandmother and told me he gives it an 8 out of 10. The little kid saw it with me and liked it as well.
I'd see Finding Dory or BFG instead. If you have to see it, it's not horrible and is entertaining in parts (especially for pet owners). Children will no doubt enjoy and are unlikely to pick up on the parts that bothered me the most. Of course, that doesn't mean that over time exposure to this type of racist subtext won't have some effect. It's disappointing that the filmmakers went in this direction.