The world appropriately looked on in wonder when it was revealed what our toys were doing when we weren’t looking in Toy Story and its sequels, so why not repeat the formula with our pets? Thankfully, The Secret Life Of Pets isn’t nearly as soulless and mercenary as that sentence might suggest, but it also doesn’t come within a cat’s whisker of even getting close to the brilliance of Pixar’s keystone franchise. Like its Illumination Studios stablemate, Minions, The Secret Life Of Pets is designed as a lots-of-noise-and-action thigh-slapper for the kids, with a few nods to the grown-ups accompanying them, rather than a bundle of adult-friendly riches.
The film focuses on Max (voiced by Louis C.K), a dog who loves his owner with a rare brand of loyalty and affection. But when he gets a new roommate in the big, shaggy, bullying form of Duke (Eric Stonestreet), Max’s enjoyably insular world is turned inside out and upside down. As the two not-exactly-alpha dogs’ rivalry slowly, surely evolves into friendship, the two pooches mix it up with all of the other pets (a winning, colourful collection of cats, dogs, fish, birds, and everything in between, voiced by big talent like Lake Bell, Jenny Slate, Albert Brooks and Ellie Kemper) that live in their (where’s the strata committee?) apartment building. Circumstances then conspire to let Max and Duke loose into the big, bad world, where they go paw-to-paw with a ragged, ramshackle community of stray, near-feral abandoned pets (led by the wonderfully demented bunny, Snowball, voiced with furious, hilarious abandon by Kevin Hart) who bear a collective grudge against the humans that have flushed (yes, there are alligators) and brushed them.
While The Secret Life Of Pets has stacks of fun with its pets-on-the-loose premise, it resolutely refuses to go any deeper. Opportunities for pathos and emotion are introduced and then loudly dropped in favour of more action and comedy, leaving the heavy subtextual lifting to Snowball and his crew of furry, feathered, scaly reprobates. These gloriously messed up critters provide the film with its most effective point of difference. They’re deranged, weird, funny, and frightening (but with a sad, affecting backstory), and prove that, in this case, the best cinematic pets aren’t house-trained. Hopefully, they bark and roar so loud that Illumination Studios throws them a bone in the form of their own spin-off movie.
Captain Fantastic is a good title for this offbeat film, as it suggests echoes of a comic book world where heroes actually exist. The question of whether the rather weird father depicted here is a hero or not is one deliberately ambiguous aspect of this tale. The film is lucky to have Viggo Mortensen in the titular role. Mortensen is one of the most charismatic and fearless actors around, and his name on the cast list is usually a guarantee of something not run of the mill. Actor-turned-director, Matt Ross, also clearly loves this material, but he has deliberately mixed genres and tones to sometimes baffling effect.
Mortenson plays Ben, a rugged individualist taking things to extremes. When he finds himself in sole charge of his six children, he decides to raise them away from corrupting civilisation by taking them to the woods in the north of Washington State. Here he supervises a back-to-nature school with philosophy classes and survival techniques all mixed in. Instead of the over-commercialised Christmas, for example, they now celebrate “Noam Chomsky Day.” The kids never need to go to town. When they do, however, there is some comedy to be had in their shocked realisation that so many Americans are now obese. “They’re like hippos, Dad,” says one of the younger kids. All the children adore their do-anything dad, and they thrive on their freedom and the way that he never patronises them, but rather explores every issue that they raise as honestly as he can. A lot of Ben’s decisions actually show a respect for kids’ minds. But when Ben’s some-time father in law (a brilliant and anchoring turn from Frank Langella) finds out how feral this has all gotten, he calls Ben out on his apparently inappropriate parenting style.
As noted, Captain Fantastic is deliberately hard to place. Parts of it are like a benign version of Lord Of The Flies, and parts of it are a social satire combined with farce. Although the ending of the film will lose some viewers, the journey that we’ve gone on with this little brood is rather memorable. The scenes with Mortensen and Langella, in particular, are pitch perfect, and add a vital sense of the view beyond the bubble that Ben has tried to encase the kids in. The film’s deliberate decision not to judge any of the characters encourages us to enter into the whole unlikely situation in the right spirit. It is a strange ride, but a haunting little film.
Running at the Queensland Art Gallery's Gallery of Modern Art until October 2, "What You Want: Music Cinema" is a program of some of the best and most provocative music documentaries and features around. We speak to season curator, Peter McKay, about the process of putting together a cinematic playlist.