I'll admit it, I have a serious weakness for kid's movies, and it seems that I'm not the only one. While animation was once made solely for younger viewers, more and more films are coming out packed with adult jokes and references, along with deeper or more mature themes. Just think about the Star Wars references that pepper Toy Story, or that first heartbreaking montage in Up. There is no doubt that animated films aren't just for kids any more, which is amazing for fans like myself, but definitely makes it harder for writers to strike the right balance between catering for a younger audience and engaging with more mature subject matter.
Illumination Entertainment did an incredible job with its first feature, Despicable Me, which was so successful that it spawned both a sequel and a spin off feature to be released next month (Minions). However, having released the trailer for their new project The Secret Life Of Pets this week, it feels like this latest offering may just miss the mark.
The trailer is packed to the brim with adorable CGI pets, and has some amazing voice actors involved (including Louis CK , Ellie Kemper and Kevin Hart), but somehow, the concept just feels a little too familiar.
The film is set in a New York apartment building that is clearly very pet friendly. Inhabitants include dogs, cats, birds and fish, and it seems that these little guys may get up to some very interesting things while their owners are out at work all day. According to the synopsis, it's not just using kitchen appliances as massagers or creating elaborate fantasy flight plans - there's a war brewing between the happily owned animals and their abandoned counterparts. Under the command of a little white bunny named Snowball (obviously), the street pets set out to take revenge on those still in homes, and hilarious adventures are bound to ensue. As an added twist to the tale, the two main characters are dogs named Max (the old faithful) and Duke (a new rescued mongrel), who have to "put their quarrels aside" to save the day.
In essence, then, we have a whole world of adventure that exists behind closed doors and out of the sight of humans, along with a classic odd couple scenario.
Issue being, of course, that this is something that has already pretty much been done to death.
Toy Story, Monsters Inc, even Finding Nemo, to an extent - all secret worlds that appeal to the audience's inner child, all with variations of the odd couple, and all hugely successful films. Perhaps this is a tried and true formula, and The Secret Life of Pets will capitalize on that. This first trailer is definitely focusing on the "secret life" aspect of the film, as we see each animal leaping into action as the front door locks - whether their action is to eat everything in the fridge, turn on the TV, or change the music and start rocking out. Clearly this is just the beginning, and we'll see the pets wandering from apartment to apartment (and into the wider world), coming up with all kinds of ingenious plans, and (hopefully) doing some frantic clean up before the humans get home.
However, while previous films in this style tapped into a secret world that gives us validation and the warm fuzzies (who didn't want to think that their toys came to life, or feel justified in jumping into bed so that nothing underneath it could grab us?), I wonder if this world is going to have the same appeal.
Pets have always been seen as companions, as the loyal best friend, and while most owners may joke about the things they get up to when we aren't around, the general love of animals is based in the fact that they don't have secrets. Dogs are universally loved for being completely open, loving, having no judgments about us and for waiting faithfully and excitedly for us to come home. Re-imagining them without the adorable desperation for our return could actually take away some of the magic of a furry friend, rather than adding to it. Thinking about the monsters in the closet as an entirely different universe is one thing - thinking about the furball who is meant to be your most loving friend as a duplicitous fridge-raider... that just doesn't make me all warm and gooey inside.
As for cats, with their human slaves and quiet plotting - well, that's nothing new. The internet is already filled with the secret lives of cats, so it's hardly an original or attention-grabbing concept. Now, should the cats turn out to be deeply loyal and a little stupid... that could be interesting, but no one who has ever served a cat would believe it!
It's also worth noting that Pixar's latest offering, Inside Out (which has been receiving rave reviews from early screenings), is doing something different. Instead of the literal secret worlds we've seen already, the film explores a much less tangible universe - that of the human mind. Rather than exploring jealousy and a fear of the unknown through a physical addition to the group, Jealousy becomes physical herself. The same messages are still present - kindness, open mindedness, understanding (this is a kids movie, after all) - but this is yet another novel take on the main themes. As much as I love animated furballs, it just doesn't feel like a fresh approach.
Because odd couples and secret worlds aside, this simply isn't something new at it's most basic level. Pets have been given voices and stories in animation for decades; 101 Dalmations, Oliver and Company, Finding Nemo (specifically, the office fish tank), Bolt, The Aristocats, the list just goes on and on. The idea that pets have adventures behind our backs isn't new in any way, and it's worth noting that many of the most popular of these involve a loyal pet fighting against the odds to make it home to their human.
While The Secret Life of Pets looks adorable, I'm wondering if that's going to be enough to allow it to compete with other animated offerings. If nothing else, I can at least guarantee that I'll like the merchandise! That said, Despicable Me is incredible, and if this studio can make an uber-villain and some strange yellow lumps into a sensation, they may be able to turn this slightly stale concept into a success.