An enjoyable if forgettable animated comedy.
The animated film industry has always been dominated by the juggernaut that is Pixar (and more recently Walt Disney Animation Studios) in terms of quality, and studios such as Illumination and Dream Works have always struggled to make as big an impact. They’ve made many attempts with varying degrees of success. The Secret Life of Pets, marks Illumination’s latest effort to carve out a piece of Pixar’s pie.
The Secret Life of Pets focuses on Max (Louis CK), a dog completely content with his life. He loves his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper), and whenever she is away he spends his time hanging out with all of the other pets in his apartment complex. Life couldn’t be more perfect for him, until one day Katie brings home a new dog by the name of Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Duke is a giant nuisance to Max, and feels he is threatening his perfect life style. Max then conspires against in an attempt to get rid of him. Duke tries to retaliate, and one thing leads to another and eventually the pair finds themselves in the clutches of animal control. After getting broken out by an anti-pet owner bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart), the two must work together in order to find their way back home.
So basically, it’s Toy Story but with pets instead of toys. It’s a simple and familiar story, and one that is extremely predictable. There weren’t any real surprises, everything happened pretty much how one would expect this to. Illumination aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel here. Instead of telling a compelling narrative with emotional punch like a Pixar film, they opt for more of a straight-forward comedy.
This works in their favor, as Pets is pretty hilarious. I laughed quite a bit over the course of the film, and while a fair share of the jokes don’t land, enough do for it to be enjoyable. The impressive thing about Pets is how well it implements physical comedy. Physical comedy is usually extremely difficult to pull off, but when done well it can be very funny, and Pets manages to do it well. It’s a lot like Looney Tunes in that way,which I think is the film’s most accurate comparison. The Secret Life Pets had a relatively simple goal: craft a humorous film filled with cute animals, and it achieved that goal quite well.
Pets manages to be heart warming at quite a few parts, but those scenes mainly dealt with the relationships between pet owner’s and their pets. Outside of that, the emotional beats mostly fell flat, as most of the characters in the film felt fairly two-dimensional. Luckily for Pets, there aren’t too many scenes like that. The focus is on comedy, and it works in the film’s favor. For the most part.
There are a few sequences in the film that felt distracting and disconnected from the rest of the film, such as the inclusion of a random hot-dog themed musical number that added very little. There are a couple of examples of this throughout, and they all serve little consequence in the overall picture. Pets is already a pretty short film, so to have many of those minutes wasted by scenes such is a big detriment for the film, especially when so many of the other plot-lines feel rushed.
The main plot focuses on Max and Duke trying to make it back home, but their is a b-plot that revolves around Max’s neighboring pets adventuring out into NYC in order to bring Max home. They are lead by a Gidget (Jenny Slate) a spunky and romantic dog determined to brink Max home. Like most of the film, this sub plot is enjoyable but there’s very little substance to be found. They go out to find him and bring him home, and it’s as straightforward as that.
The biggest problem with the film is its lack of any real engaging characters. Max is okay and experiences the expected amount of growth, but his character’s effectiveness is mainly sold on how good of a job Louis CK does voicing him. Duke however is a pretty static character, and while Pets tries to craft a sympathetic backstory for him, it’s so insanely rushed and resolved that it ends up falling flat. The side characters were cute and charming, I especially enjoyed Albert Brooks’ falcon trying to fight against is predator nature, and Hannibal Buress as a dachshund who’s only trait is that he moves around funny. But they are just throwaway characters with no real effect on the rest of the film. Outside of Max, the only character to make any real impact on me was Snowball. But unfortunately, Snowball’s impact is a negative one, as I found myself annoyed with his character the entire film, as he exhibit the worst qualities of Kevin Hart.
All in all, The Secret Life of Pets is fun to sit through. I laughed throughout, I thought the pets were cute, and I never felt bored. But once I had left the theater and went about my day, I had completely forgotten about the Pets, it failed to leave any lasting impression on me. The Secret Life of Pets is a lot like fast food: simple, enjoyable, but empty, and forgettable. But hey, in a summer filled that’s been filled with utterly terrible films, The Secret Life of Pets manages to stand out by simply being okay.