The Illumination Profit Train Rolls On
It’s entirely possible that had Illumination’s first film been anything other than the Minion-charged Despicable Me back in 2010, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Fortunately, however, Universal Pictures had the presence of mind to take a chance on Illumination and Illumination had the presence of mind to include a bunch of little yellow spheres in cover-alls in their super villain animated movie. What resulted was their turning a $69-million budget into $543.1-million at the box office.
Since then every single film Illumination has made can claim similar profits and the company is showing no signs of slowing. Enter The Secret Life of Pets, Illumination’s 6th film, released July of 2016. Following in the profitability trend, this one turned its $75-million budget into $875.5-million at the box office. Universal literally owes this company for putting their CG animated film game on the map.
In this one we follow along on the exploits of Max (Louis C.K.), a pampered terrier living the comfortable life in a New York building until his owner adopts Duke, a giant rescue dog who unwittingly upsets the balance of Max’s domestic environment.
The action ensues when the two canines do their best to rid themselves of the other, ultimately leading to a risky feline showdown in a back-alley. It’s nearly the pound for the pair of them before a little white fluffy rabbit (Kevin Hart), leader of an underground pet resistance, decides they’re worthy of initiation and sets them free.
The truth of the matter is the summary and even the film’s very title come awfully close to ripping off Pixar’s classic Toy Story, from the idea that we don’t know what our toys/pets do while we’re gone to the “new guy who causes ripples on the pond” dynamic. In practice, though, the similarities aren’t quite so cut and dry. Where Toy Story understated its ambitions by packing scenes with charm and relate-ability, Secret Life of Pets goes wackiness overboard in a succession of segments, each crazier than the next.
By the conclusion of this crew’s day, entire buses are destroyed, dog catchers find themselves in traction, underground-dwelling communities of rogue pets are reformed and bridges are shut down. If this were truly the type of activity Fido were engaged in on a daily basis, the evening news would be having a field day.
As it stands, however, it’s pretty tricky not to come away from this one without a fondness for Illumination’s mastery of extracting humor from the medium. Unlike your average Pixar piece, for example, there is no real threat of danger here as everything is, well, over the top. Laughs comes quickly and frequently with emphasis on lightning-fast pacing, bright, sharp visuals and a few witty lines along the way.
Fans seeking depth of story telling or even the type of cleverness that put Pixar on the map will be sorely disappointed; Secret Life is much more straight-forward and linear in its narrative to offer any real layers of cleverness but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. Like the Despicable Me films before it, this one reminds its viewer to let go and enjoy the digital ride, suspending any and all disbelief in the process. At the end of the day, expect to come away with some chuckles and a definite appreciation for Illumination’s uncanny ability to capture fun in their projects. And looking at the profit margin on this one, it’s a safe bet the fun will continue for years to come.