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Why ‘The Secret Life of Pets,’ ‘Finding Dory’ Offer More Than Fun Animation

Last weekend, I took my kids, ages 10 and 12, to see “Finding Dory” and “The Secret Life of Pets,” two movies that, by all accounts, have been extremely successful—more so than most other so-called summer blockbusters.

The kids’ (and my) verdict: six thumbs up for both. My kids have pretty sophisticated senses of humor and can spot a dud from 100 yards, so trust me when I say you can rely on their opinions. And let’s not forget the opinions of millions of moviegoers, who have propelled both “Pets” and “Dory” to the top of the box-office sales lists.

It’s easy to see why “The Secret Life of Pets” is one of the summer’s biggest smashes, having earned almost $204 million thus far. Its cast of oh-so-many colorful and fleshed-out characters (thanks to talented veteran voice actors) offers belly laughs for both kids and adults, a significant cuteness factor, plenty of thrills and spills, a quest shared between two growing-ever-closer nemeses, a sweet and sassy dog romance and the happiest of endings for the featured pet heroes.

Its detractors say that it’s a “Toy Story” rip-off. It’s predictable and by the numbers—not enough “teeth” as it were.

Katie Walsh, critic for Tribune News Service, said the movie “draws on the universal experience of pet ownership to draw out the ‘awww’ in all of us. But the film butt-scoots by on its premise. There’s not much more going on, thematically or emotionally below the surface.”

Sophie Gilbert, critic for The Atlantic recognized its true nature as well as its more base benefits: “There’s something quietly therapeutic about spending 90 minutes with some nutty, heroic furballs on a hero’s journey with very low stakes.”

Those sentiments might ring true to some degree, but c’mon, people. This is an animated feature film meant to entertain the broadest audience possible with a universally adored theme. There are plenty of dramas out there that feature pets and animals and that are heavy, if that’s what you’re looking for. I, for one, think a prim and proper poodle turning the sound to 11 and headbanging to death metal upon his owner’s departure is pretty damn funny, as are lines like “oh, great, you’re in love … how gross for everyone” from a no-nonsense, stately basset hound. There’s plenty to love here, folks.

The bigger universal themes at work here negate the naysayers, in my opinion. For all its constant motion, “The Secret Life of Pets” is, at its heart, about family and friendship. About what can be accomplished when cooperation is the order of the day. And there’s nothing superficial about any of those topics. I won’t give away what I think is the most tender moment at the end, but I will tell you a tissue was involved.

Were there behaviors and petkeeping practices that I don’t agree with? Sure, but I’ve been in the pet industry for 25 years and a pet owner for 38 … I should know a few things. But this shouldn’t be about judging cartoon people who have taken in, cared for and loved cartoon animals that in the real world would have been euthanized. Any pets, real or otherwise, that are housed, fed, cared for and ultimately loved have it way better than those that don’t. On that I think that we can agree.

“The Secret Life of Pets” should be celebrated by the pet industry, as it acts to introduce youngsters who might not yet own pets to the joys of sharing their childhoods with furry, feathered or finned friends. And it playfully and lovingly reinforces what millions of pet owners already know. That in their “secret” moments, our devoted pets really are just waiting for us to come home at the end of the day to share togetherness, treats and love.

“Finding Dory” also is about valiant quests, searching for answers, beating the odds and, again, friends and family, and what can be achieved through working together despite differences. Take a look at the world we live in, folks. Animated films are driving home to impressionable kiddos the lessons and values that adults would do well to remember.

At this point, I’m not sure which of the “Finding” franchises I prefer. I mean, the octopus in “Dory” absolutely steals the show and our hearts (as do a few other new characters). But the challenge with a movie like “Dory,” as many pet industry and aquatic industry organizations are careful to point out, is that proper stewardship of a blue tang is vastly different from a betta. The concerns are hugely valid and not to be dismissed.

“Dory” has its truly funny moments, but much of it was subtly dark—so much so that many young children might sense it but won’t truly notice it, but enlightened parents might. Dark in a way that showed aquatic life is about much more than colorful and fun tanks that sit on countertops at home. There was poignancy in its darkness. That nature is fragile, that aquatic creatures’ survival isn’t easy, that aquariums that seem like enchanting learning centers might actually be scary for the life housed there no matter how sophisticated the institution (there’s a reason none of the characters want to go in the touch tank). That the world under the sea is delicate and fascinating in a very significant and awe-inspiring way.

Because “Dory” was made the way it was, I’m hoping that the overall lessons about aquatic life it shares paired with responsible aquatic retailers who will firmly steer beginners away from expert-level fishkeeping yet share their knowledge and enthusiastically encourage those same folks to start with more manageable tanks will make the difference in this case. I have faith that reputable, solid aquatic retailers will remain the first and best line of defense in this matter.

“Dory” is another example of a movie that has potential to make a difference. Maybe the older kid who recognized the underlying seriousness will be a little more serious himself about environmental issues as they pertain to aquatic and all animal life. Maybe a new batch of youngsters will start a lifelong love of all things aquatic. It’s a film that offers great opportunity.

Neither “Pets” nor “Dory” are superficial, if you stop to think about them. One of the true masterstrokes of storytelling is artfully showing listeners the real tale underneath the color, the humor and whatever else is layered on top. Both these movies skillfully do that for general mass audiences. Underneath the always-important theme of family lies an even greater theme: other-than-human life and why we should care about it.

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