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Two Drink Minimum: ‘The Secret Life of Pets’, Looney Tunes and Animated Logic

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Two Drink Minimum is a comedy-based column by Vague Visages writer Jacob Oller.

Animation has benefitted slapstick like no other form of comedy. Objects that would kill actual performers — the dropped anvils, the backfiring guns, the faulty dynamite — roast and crush our cartoons with zany unreality that makes violence secondary to lovable failure. Modern animation, especially those films discarding character humor for the simple gags of physical comedy, such as The Secret Life of Pets and its preceding Minions-based short, often lean too heavily on the confines of the real world when their jokes urge to burst through into this unreality.

The grandmasters, the founding fathers of this unreality, are the Looney Tunes. The timing of Friz Freleng, the energy of Bob Clampett and the boundary-stretching intelligence of Tex Avery brought the Tunes away from the sentimental and sweet Disney animations that were its competitors. When Chuck Jones (and others) began developing these characters into the ones audiences know and love today (refining Wile E. Coyote and Bugs Bunny not just with jokes, but with personality), the Looney Tunes became legendary.

These characters want things. Not simply to exist in a world, but to move within it. And their movements echo their desires. Lovelorn Pepé Le Pew sproings and bounces then slides amorously towards the object (victim) of his desires. More humanistic animated comedies, like this year’s Finding Dory, focus on realistic movement and human-like characters. The comedic premise doesn’t bank on over-the-top zaniness, but in plunging the emotional depths of the ocean. Real issues correspond to real movement.

The jokes in The Secret Life of Pets and its half-hearted Minions lead-in don’t have the work behind them that’s behind the jokes Bugs or Daffy tell. The characters don’t have anything in them. The Secret Life of Pets starts off blank with characters never seen before and fails to build them beyond their basic appearance. The big, shaggy Duke has jokes about his imposing size, the fluffy Gidget and Snowball are aggressive despite their cuteness, and Chloe is a fat cat, leaving Max as the normal “default” protagonist. He doesn’t have a personality so much as he has an absence of physical traits.

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The Minions are all the same by design, showing a great mind for branding and a terrible mind for comedy. They all move quasi-realistically, attempting to obey physics while also mimicking the explosive madness of Avery and Jones. The most basic instinct (the desire to get home) could easily be leveraged into both character and comedy, but The Secret Life of Pets never embraces it, opting instead to muddy the waters with villainous subplots and romances. A possible buddy road comedy becomes a rotating menagerie with exhibits that urge to break free from their too-realistic confines. The logic of the film isn’t consistent. It lacks Chuck Jones’ “discipline.”

“All humor grows from two things: human behavior and logic. If it’s not logical, it’s not going to be funny and if it doesn’t come from human behavior, how do we know it’s funny?” Jones encouraged reading and the examination of the real world to bolster the imagination. Otherwise, his animators would just be redrawing the same silly faces. Mapping behaviors to jokes — the expectations to the punchlines — is a delicate and metered process. If this becomes too erratic then the jokes become too chaotic to process. A series of goofy images isn’t a comedy.

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Jones’ point is that comedy (and drama for that matter) needs inspiration. The Secret Life of Pets has no inspiration, only cited sources. The slapstick perpetuated by the Minions and the surface-level misdirection by The Secret Life of Pets’ adorable villains may be light amusements, but they fail to understand their art on any level that will make it stick with viewers. The Minions are too haphazard and mass-produced to warm viewers like the human-acting and failure-prone Tunes they so desperately wish to be.

The pets are too tightly bonded to their realistic animation style for their stupid humor to connect. One of the best and funniest scenes in The Secret Life of Pets is a silent sequence when a dachshund climbs up a precarious series of obstacles using his overlong body in gravity-defying ways. When The Secret Life of Pets jettisons its desire for reality and moves as loosely and lightly as its emotional and intellectual depth, the logic clicks together. The dream sequences are so jarring because the rest of the film is caught up in subplots. And the internal logic wasn’t fashioned by its creators, but by the sources it steals from. They’re incompatible parts welded together, which makes for a clunky vehicle. The Secret Life of Pets gets to the end, but it’s no fun getting there.

From AAA TV to Z-movies, Oklahoma City-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.

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