The Secret Life of Pets

July 12, 2016 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart
Directed by: Yarrow Cheney (debut) and Chris Renaud (“Despicable Me”)
Written by: Cinco Paul (“Despicable Me”), Ken Daurio (“Despicable Me”), Kevin Lynch (“Minions”)

If the new animated film “The Secret Life of Pets” were a domesticated animal itself, it would be one of those adorable albeit annoyingly-named hybrid dogs – a labradoodle or a cockapoo or, as Jeff Daniels describes in “Dumb & Dumber,” a bullshit (the cross between a bulldog and a shih-tzu). Each breed is face-melting cute and highly marketable, but essentially just another lovable, everyday mutt.

That’s not to say moviegoers won’t fall head over paws with the cast of furry, feathered and even hairless characters in the sixth animated feature film from Illumination Entertainment, the studio which also boasts the popular “Despicable Me” franchise in their catalog. While Illumination still hasn’t reached the storytelling heights of Pixar or Disney (what in the hell was “Hop” anyway?), the company’s cost-cutting animation techniques (they spend far less than their competition) are definitely not coughing up furballs either.

Despite the notable animation and top-notch voice work, “Pets” displays little originality in its script. In fact, “Dog Story” probably would’ve been a better title. The film tells the tale of Max (Louis C.K.), a Jack Russell Terrier living in a Manhattan apartment with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). Max’s perfect life is thrown out of whack when Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a shaggy and somewhat reckless Newfoundland dog to join their family. When Max and Duke are snatched by the pound, Max’s animal friends, led by Gidget (Jenny Slate), a squeaky, lovesick Pomeranian, set out to find the canine companions and bring them home before a psychotic, scene-stealing bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart) and his wretched gang of abandoned pets turn them into puppy chow.

Ignore the countless and seemingly shameless similarities to the original “Toy Story” and “Pets” might be a little easier to take at face value. If you’ve ever wondered what your pet does when you leave home, the film’s screenwriters, Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio and Kevin Lynch, devise some interesting ideas and adventures for these rogue pets to get into. And to be honest, aside from borrowing heavily from other movies, a lot of it is charming and harmless and funnier than your average poop jokes (although there are definitely poop jokes). Children won’t mind the familiar narrative and will flock to it because of the likeable animals, in which case “Pets” fall somewhere between the impressive “Zootopia” from Disney and the mind-numbing, app-turned-movie “Angry Birds” from Sony.

The animation film industry continues to expand every year, so studios have to know they’re vying for the same audiences and that parents are going to have to start getting a lot choosier when it comes to entertainment for the kiddos. Story matters. Luckily, “Pets” partakes in just enough wacky fun to make parents feel like they didn’t screw the pooch.

Despicable Me 2

July 5, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Benjamin Bratt
Directed by: Pierre Coffin (“Despicable Me”) and Chris Renaud (“Despicable Me”)
Written by: Ken Daurio (“Despicable Me”) and Cinco Paul (“Despicable Me”)

Other than uttering the word Minions with a goofy smile, not much more has to be said when attempting to persuade someone to go see the animated sequel “Despicable Me 2.” There simply hasn’t been a more entertaining group of interrelated sidekicks since the little crane-praising green aliens from the “Toy Story” franchise. Not only are they extremely marketable, something Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment are sure to continue to bank on in the toy aisles, they’re easily the funniest characters to come out of the series since the original hit the big screen in 2010.

Besides the Minions stealing the show, “Despicable Me 2” is just about on par with the storytelling of “Despicable Me.” The creativity behind in the screenplay written by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul is passable and Steve Carell giving voice to lead character Gru once again is just as mismatched as it was the first time around. Carell may be the big name on the marquee, but there’s something about the weird accent he gives Gru that feels forced. The same can be said about Illumination Entertainment’s other lead voice actors like Russell Brand in “Hop” and Danny DeVito in “The Lorax.” They have yet to find a way to connect the right voice with the right main character like Pixar Animation has done even with small-name actors like Patton Oswalt in “Ratatouille.”

There is also much to be desired from an ineffective villain in this sequel. Benjamin Bratt voices El Macho, a chubby Mexican who salsa dances and is planning world domination. Two secondary love stories could have benefited from some serious polishing, too. One involves Gru and his new lady friend Lucy (Kristen Wiig). The other features El Macho’s charming son Antonio (Moises Arias), who catches the eye of Gru’s oldest daughter Margo (Miranda Cosgrove). Neither of them have any real relationship value.

But forget lacking love stories, the defective villain and the return of the ill-conceived fart gun. The Minions, who unsurprisingly will get their own movie next year called “Minions,” are given tons more to do in “Despicable Me 2” and don’t disappoint. Along with their hilariously rambunctious behavior and cuddly cuteness, the Minions reel in the laughs with some dorky film and music references tossed in by Daurio and Paul just for the adults in the theater. These include a stroll back in time to the 1978 version of the horror/sci-fi film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and a musical interlude from 90s R&B group All-4-One. Leave it to the Minions to turn a song as romantic (cough) as “I Swear” into a riotous parody.

The Lorax

March 4, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Danny DeVito, Ed Helms, Zac Efron, Taylor Swift
Directed by: Chris Renaud (“Despicable Me”) and Kyle Balda (debut)
Written by: Ken Daurio (“Despicable Me”)

Look, we’ve been getting adaptations of Dr. Seuss books for the better part of 70 years, so what’s the use in complaining now? After all, Seuss’ collaborations with animation pioneers like Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, and Friz Freleng produced some charming little shorts that brought Seuss’ pictures and poetry perfectly to life. These efforts even produced a bona fide classic in Jones’ “How The Grinch Stole Christmas!” TV special, which on its own earns enough goodwill to make you forget someone thought it was a good idea to make a punishing 104-minute live action version of the same story.

With Seuss’ widow putting the kibosh on any more flesh-and-blood adaptations of her late husband’s work, a return to animation, now of the three-dimensional computer-generated variety, was in order. After all, there’s money to be made and plenty of Seuss’ books not yet clumsily stretched to feature length. In a move that comically echos the Once-ler’s desire to make mass-market garbage nobody needs at the expense of something beautiful, the filmmakers gleefully chopped down one of Seuss’ literary trees in order to summon this Lorax.

Directed by Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda (both veterans of “Despicable Me”), “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” is a cinematic exercise that simply misses the point. No doubt the movie is visually exciting, having been given the full candy-colored 3D-CGI treatment. This version allows each bright Truffula tuft and dingy mustache hair to pop off the screen and sway gently in the digital breeze. But the story, which wraps an inflated version of the tale told in the book in a heavy-handed anti-corporate/love story framing device, commits the cardinal sin of children’s entertainment: it’s boring.

The film opens with a musical tribute to the perfect artificiality of Thneedville, a “Truman Show”-esque walled compound ruled by corporate overlord O’Hare (voice of Rob Riggle), an evil capitalist with a stature and hair style reminiscent of Edna Mode from “The Incredibles.” Thneedville is home to Ted (voice of Zac Efron), a young boy in love with Audrey (voice of Taylor Swift), the artsy girl across the street who wants nothing more than to see a real tree, proclaiming she’ll marry the first boy who can deliver one. Ted is inspired and, after a tip from his grandmother (voice of Betty White), sets out to find the Once-ler (voice of Ed Helms), the mysterious man who knows what happened to all the trees. The Once-ler has a shameful secret, a troubled past he recounts to Ted, namely how he came to know the creature known as the Lorax (voice of Danny DeVito).

The strain of extending Seuss’ fable to feature length begins to wear on the viewer, primarily in the middle of the movie as we’re mired in one of the Once-ler’s extended flashbacks. More than once the story shifts away from the Once-ler’s point of view, recounting details he was not present/conscious for. Did The Lorax fill him in later?  And while the movie’s over-arching environmental message is noble, “The Lorax” does not exist in a vacuum. One can’t help but wonder how audiences might reconcile the conservation/anti-consumerism mindset on display in the film with the mustachioed visage of The Lorax being used to sell SUVs, disposable diapers, and candy-sprinkled breakfast foods once they leave the theater.

The Lorax speaks for the trees…and also for Truffula Chip Pancakes, available for a limited time, only at IHOP!

Despicable Me

July 9, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand
Directed by: Pierre Coffin (debut) and Chris Renaud (debut)
Written by: Ken Daurio (“Horton Hears a Who!”) and Cinco Paul (“Horton Hears a Who!”)

While the cuteness factor is at an all-time high in the new animated feature film “Despicable Me,” the elimination of any real conflict between characters is bothersome. Sure, a collection of likeable toons can offer a gleeful experience especially to those of a certain age, but important as it is to have someone to cheer for, it’s also kind of fun to have someone to root against. In “Despicable Me,” everyone is either just so gosh darn adorable or wacky, you might as well be watching an episode of the “Teletubbies.”

The happy-go-luckiness begins with the yellow, scene-stealing, Twinkie-shaped characters known as the minions, who will probably grace every lunchbox and backpack once the new school year starts up next month. The minions, who take on the same type of role as the claw-loving, squeeze-toy aliens in the “Toy Story” franchise, work for the darkly sophisticated Gru (Steve Carell), a supervillain who cuts in line at the coffee shop and hogs the road while driving his oversized, jet-powered vehicle.

When Gru finds out another supervillain known as Vector (Jason Segel) is outworking him by successfully executing high-profile crimes (his latest is stealing the Great Pyramid of Giza), Gru decides he will not settle for being second best. His plan: to steal the moon, a plan that first requires him to get his hands on a shrink ray gun retained by Vector so he can simply pluck a miniature moon right from the sky.

To do so, Gru adopts a trio of orphans – Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnus (Elsie Fisher) – to infiltrate Vector’s lair by peddling cookies at his front door. In return, the girls, who make up a major portion of the good-natured spirit of the animation, show Gru that being a supervillain doesn’t mean he can’t also be a loving dad.

And so goes Gru’s transformation from a coldhearted evildoer to compassionate father figure. It’s part of the basic and mostly cliché script by “Horton Hears a Who!” screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul. Aside from Carell’s awkwardly inconsistent voice work as Gru, most of the character’s problems come during his transition from baddie to daddy. “Despicable Me” digs for some sentimentality, but ultimately comes up short.

Left to fill space: the minions, who are bound to be a crowd favorite by the end of the summer. They scuttle, chatter incoherently, and earn their laughs mostly when getting bopped in the head or knocked to the ground. “Despicable Me” deserves a chuckle or two here and there, but the safety net it seems to be working over gets in the way of producing any authentic animated dramedy not found on Nickelodeon.