The Secret Life of Pets; The Purge: Election Year
It’s still early in the summer, but some of the more entertaining films I’ve seen have been animated ones.
The Secret Life of Pets is enjoyable (if a little flawed) from start to finish. It’s not that the animation itself is pretty distinguished; it’s serviceable but you won’t walk out marveling at its artistry (as you would say, Finding Dory). But it is filled with humor, wit, and characters you wind up caring about (mostly of the animal variety), with a formidable array of voice talent in top form.
The film’s premise has Max (Louis C.K.), a pretty happy terrier in a Manhattan apartment, living the good life along with pets from neighboring apartments, one in particular Gidget (Jenny Slate), a white Pomeranian who is sweet on him. Max’s idyllic existence is shattered when his adoring owner brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a giant dog who wastes no time in displacing Max from his very comfy bed. Max makes it plain how he plans to rid himself of Duke, so during a walk in the park (accompanied by a pretty distracted dogwalker), Duke manages to drag Max away from his surroundings—and that’s where the adventures really begin. They encounter a gang of cats (led by Steve Coogan), are captured by Animal Control workers, and are freed by Snowball (Kevin Hart), a white rabbit who believes they are vicious strays—and is intent on rebelling against all things human. When Snowball discovers Max and Duke are not exactly killer animals, the pair are forced to rely on each other if they’re going to make it back to quiet domesticity alive. Meanwhile, Gidget rallies the other animals to help find Max (and Duke), including Tiberius, a hawk (Albert Brooks—with this and Finding Dory, he’s having a really good summer!) who has trouble curbing his natural predatory instincts.
The Secret Life of Pets works because of the consistently amusing byplay among the various characters, namely the growing trust between Max and Duke (though their initial antagonism is dispensed with a little too soon), the sustained comic fury of Snowball (probably Kevin Hart’s funniest appearance yet) as well as the espirit de corps among Ginger, Tiberius and the other pets. There are also several laugh out loud moments, especially concerning the fate of a dangerous (and fairly frightening) viper—and a spot-on vocal characterization from Louis C.K. that more than carries the movie. If the film doesn’t evoke a true sense of wonder (like Finding Dory), it does succeed in creating an environment filled with characters one cares for—which is more than can be said for a number of live-action films these days.
I hadn’t seen the first two Purge thrillers, but, since this is campaign season, I figured I would give The Purge: Election Year a try. For those unfamiliar with the set-up, it seems that in these United States, there is an annual Purge aimed at keeping the population in check, but more often felt by minorities—while the rich and powerful somehow profit (It is also backed by the NRA, as well as the NFFA—the New Founding Fathers of America—although in the film they may as well be one and the same).
In this installment, a Senator (Elizabeth Mitchell) is running for the Presidency based on her pledge to end the Purge. Naturally, the powers that be, led by Minister Owens, the rival candidate, want her stopped, and are planning to use the Purge (when no one can be arrested for any crimes) to eliminate her—by means of “getting to” her security team. Luckily one man (Frank Grillo) is incorruptible and he and the Senator have a harrowing night eluding a Neo-Nazi military force, as well as various “purgers,” including some tourists here for a killing. In the other storyline, a store owner (Mykelti Williamson—very good and the film’s moral center) is doing his best to protect his store, particularly from some very dangerous girls who have an arsenal at their disposal.
The action is pretty effective, the pacing good throughout, and Grillo and Williamson work overtime to make you care. Yet there are many things that stretch credibility—especially the idealistic Senator’s reluctance to permanently take down the Founding Fathers (there is no equivocation intended here—these leaders are evil incarnate). Although The Purge: Election Year takes place in an imagined version of the United States, recent events have made the film hit a little too close to home. It isn’t hard to equate the film’s NFFA and its religious backers with the more intolerant, outspoken members of today’s Religious Right. Far more disturbing is that the chaos which takes place on a yearly basis in the film seems to be taking place on a far more consistent basis in this country now. Add to that the increasing polarization on all levels (political and social) and the lack of any meaningful discussion or credible solutions, and the nihilism one sees onscreen in The Purge (there is a tentative stab at a solution, but that would mean the end of the series) might unfortunately start to pale in comparison with real life indeed.