An easy story target for family-friendly movies is capitalizing on the unseen affairs of playthings and playmates that children especially can’t easily prove. This formula really came into its own with Pixar’s breakout hit, Toy Story back in 1995, and that movie’s recipe seems to be something that Universal’s and Illumination Entertainment’s The Secret Life of Pets is trying especially hard to reverse-engineer. Toy Story has certainly had no shortage of imitators in the decades since its release (the more obscure family movie, The Brave Little Toaster even preceded it with a similar idea), regarding stories about what things that children like may or may not do when no one is watching, sometimes even massive successes like Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph from 2012, though not all of them manage to make an impression.
Fortunately, the good news about The Secret Life of Pets is that it’s a very pleasant and enjoyable family movie, even if it wears its inspiration on its sleeve in several places, sometimes even going as far as to recycle entire scenes and plot elements from Toy Story. That said though, this is still easily the best movie that Illumination Entertainment has made outside of the Despicable Me franchise yet, and probably the first other effort that the animation outfit has managed that could lend itself to franchise potential. Kids will love it, and adults will at least like it, whether or not they’re taking little ones with them, making it an agreeable Summer crowd-pleaser with charm and energy to spare, even if it still doesn’t elevate itself above most of the competition.
The Secret Life of Pets primarily unfolds from the perspective of Max, voiced by Louis C.K., the dog owned by a friendly young woman named Katie, voiced by Ellie Kemper. Things are initially perfect between Max and Katie, though the natural order is upset when Katie brings home a stray dog, Duke, voiced by Eric Stonestreet, who has his own ideas about domestic principles. Immediately, we have our first plot element taken from Toy Story; The established playmate being threatened by the supposed new and improved playmate.
To be fair though, The Secret Life of Pets does at least exploit the advantage of the dogs being living beings that the world knows are alive, and this gives the movie its own unique spin on its comedy and its adventure. Naturally, Max and Duke are also joined by a host of other animal characters too, such as a Pomeranian named Gidget, voiced by Jenny Slate, who has a crush on Max, obese and snarky house cat, Chloe, voiced by Lake Bell, and hyperactive pug, Mel, voiced by Bobby Moynihan. The animals all serve as various personalities in the main fish-out-of-water story that comprises the plot, mainly involving all of these characters getting lost far away from their comfortable homes in the city of New York.
The characters are likable enough, and they do manage a good share of fun moments, on top of having a balanced ensemble that gives every animal its own chance to shine, and to make audiences laugh. Unfortunately though, it’s also true that many of these animals are not terribly memorable characters in the long term. Many of their personalities are fairly shallow, even if a few twists later in the movie with Duke especially make a valiant effort to flesh them out. Katie especially barely feels like a real presence in the movie, and might as well have been one of the off-screen honking parents from Peanuts, given how little she ultimately serves the plot. Once Duke comes home, Katie basically just exits the movie’s stakes, and completely stops impacting the storyline.
Kevin Hart’s villain, a white rabbit named Snowball, is another slight issue. Hart tries his very best in the part, and is at least one of the slightly more memorable characters, if for no other reason than his noisy, brash delivery, but the movie can never seem to get a handle on what kind of character Snowball actually is. There’s attempts at a tragic backstory and a quirky psychology with his character, but none of it amounts to much, especially when Snowball’s character traits start breaking their own rules later in the movie, such as when he easily subdues two grown human men and steals their truck in one scene, yet is somehow helpless when he’s picked up by a little girl in another. Even Snowball’s minions never really register, being a quantity-over-quality situation that shows a lot of diverse possibilities for antagonist personalities that The Secret Life of Pets never truly taps into, beyond some throwaway jokes. Snowball’s main minion, Tattoo, a pig that seemingly escaped from a cosmetics testing plant, at least steals whatever jokes Snowball leaves for the taking, but the rest of the villains feel too forced and shallow to truly care about, even when the movie desires to give them so many interesting ideas.
There isn’t a whole lot more to dig into with a lot of the movie’s personalities overall. You’ll like the personalities, and they will entertain you throughout most of the movie’s runtime, regardless of your age, but they won’t stick with you in the way that many of Disney’s, Pixar’s or Dreamworks Animation’s best personalities do, or heck, even Illumination’s own Minions from the Despicable Me franchise that seem to have infiltrated almost every consumer product known to man now. There’s always the possibility to expand on these characters in sequels, but for now, a lot of their most interesting elements are merely hinted at, rather than truly explored.
The Secret Life of Pets is fun, if noticeably derivative for adults that have seen a healthy amount of family movies, whether animated or otherwise. As I said, the movie is clearly drawing a lot of inspiration from Toy Story, though fortunately, it puts just enough creativity and uniqueness on that formula to avoid feeling like a blatant, animal-themed clone of Pixar’s 1995 classic. Even with some recycled material, the overall adventure and sense of fun is worth enjoying for kids especially, and adults will find that the humour is sharp enough to get them through even the set pieces and material that they would have seen before.
This doesn’t change the fact that The Secret Life of Pets is pretty predictable though, to the point where even young kids can probably determine a huge chunk of the story in advance. The movie is ultimately a fluffy, undemanding light snack for moviegoers, and that’s fine. There’s a few genuinely emotional scenes at least, even if they’re frustratingly rare, but this once again has The Secret Life of Pets scratching at the door of greatness, even if its fairly boilerplate tale never ultimately manages to completely find its way in.
The Secret Life of Pets is co-directed between Chris Renaud, one of Illumination’s most frequent directors that has helmed both Despicable Me movies and The Lorax, and Yarrow Cheney, a production designer from those same movies. As you can imagine then, The Secret Life of Pets follows Illumination’s familiar style pretty closely, with lots of hyper-energetic direction and editing, making everything feel very fast and exciting for kids, though not to the point where things can’t be discerned by adults. Renaud and Cheney frame some very entertaining set pieces in certain scenes too, even if I can’t really say much about them for want of avoiding spoilers.
As with much of the rest of The Secret Life of Pets, the direction is competent, and even pretty fun for the most part, but it also doesn’t elevate itself above more ambitious competing projects from Disney/Pixar or Dreamworks Animation, even just this year. Illumination is still clearly playing second fiddle to those greater studios, though The Secret Life of Pets is helmed in such a way as to be easily digestible and infectiously charming. Like I said, it’s a good crowd-pleaser, and audiences of all ages will have fun with the zaniness on-screen while it’s happening, though the movie’s direction is still clearly riding the coattails of more successful animated movie projects before it, which somewhat holds it back from its potential.
MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK
The Secret Life of Pets’ soundtrack is composed by Alexandre Desplat. Yes, seriously. This is a composer that is best known for doing the music for a lot of very thematically heavy movies, including Oscar winners and nominees like Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, The Danish Girl and The Imitation Game. This points to one of two possibilites; Either Desplat was desperate to try a more light-hearted score, or the directors didn’t really care who composed the score for The Secret Life of Pets. I’d say the former is probably more sensible to assume, but whatever the case, the score in the movie, like so much else, is fine, but not that noteworthy. It’s effectively light-hearted and mischievous, reflecting the tone of the movie well, and not really standing out in any real way.
This also applies to the rest of the audio, which is perfectly fine, though pretty pedestrian for animated movies. The cartoon-ish sound effects and audio mixing are enjoyable and pretty undemanding, and are pretty toned down in many places, to avoid frightening young children. Some of the slapstick effects are funny, and the movie does mostly avoid lowest-common-denominator-level slapstick effects, mostly, making the sound work pretty respectable in terms of being entertaining, even if all feels par for the course.
As is usual for an Illumination movie, the best part of The Secret Life of Pets is definitely its animation and visual effects, which are pretty impressive, and very engaging. The animal designs have clearly been given the most care, and rather appropriately, they stand out a lot more in contrast to the human characters, especially when the animals’ shapes and animations are very distinct, and give them the kind of lasting character that the story doesn’t really appropriately allot them. The environments are another area of the movie that is very impressive, being given a great sense of bright, cheerful vibrancy, and making New York look more appealing and inviting than it ever could be in most other movies, or even in real life! The animation even holds up very well during the many frenetic, chaotic scenes where everything is zipping around very quickly as well, and the way that the movie’s visuals keep together even at such a breakneck pace is pretty commendable.
Another expected strength in an Illumination movie is a strong 3D presentation, and that once again holds true for The Secret Life of Pets. The movie is at its most fun in 3D, even if it’s still quite enjoyable when watched flat in 2D. As usual for Illumination however, the jokes and visuals definitely tickle you the most when you have the added benefit of a 3D presentation, which also benefits from the frequently snappy animation style. The ridiculous, gimmicky 3D that sometimes shows up in animated movies is certainly accounted for here, but for the most part, the 3D makes the slapstick funnier, and the visuals more eye-popping. Again, even when the movie gets a bit more noticeably derivative, at least the fun and eye-catching visuals and 3D help to compensate for some of the shortcomings in the story.
The Secret Life of Pets was cleverly marketed, and is indicative of Illumination finally learning to better stand on their own two feet, beyond the Despicable Me franchise and the Dr. Seuss license, and that awful debacle of Hop, I suppose. The studio still has a ways to go before it starts comparing to the juggernauts of film animation though, namely Disney/Pixar and Dreamworks Animation, even if The Secret Life of Pets does represent a step in the right direction, and the studio’s first that didn’t require the giddy mugs of Minions all over it. As the adage goes; Progress, not perfection, and The Secret Life of Pets is worthy of praise in that regard, because it is progress for its studio.
You won’t fondly remember The Secret Life of Pets by the time this Summer is over, especially when you’ll likely recall Finding Dory, Kung Fu Panda 3 and Zootopiaa lot quicker when you think of animated movie standouts from this year, but for now, it’s a good, entertaining diversion for the whole family during these hot Summer weeks. Even if you just enjoy animated movies for what they are, The Secret Life of Pets is worth checking out, where it provides easy, disposable fun, while you wait for more impressive and ambitious animated movie projects like Disney’s Moana, or even Illumination’s own Sing.
Sing will probably leave more of an impression than The Secret Life of Pets towards the end of this year, but it’s good that, for 2016 at least, Illumination is trusting in more than Gru and the Minions, and adapting Dr. Seuss stories to mixed effect. The Secret Life of Pets could certainly become another franchise for Illumination, and it’s easy to like, so that’s not a bad thing. If a sequel is made though, it might want to venture off the beaten path a little bit more, since it clearly hints at a larger, more intriguing world and cast than what it presents for now, yet so much of these highlight ideas are sadly left to audience’s imaginations.
The Secret Life of Pets is entertaining, likable, and the best new movie property from Illumination since Despicable Me, even if it's also frustratingly derivative.
MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK
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THE GOOD STUFF
Likable, energetic animal cast
Some especially great funny and emotional scenes
Vibrant, appealing animation, especially in 3D
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
Clearly borrows from other animated movies, especially Toy Story
Human characters have too little bearing on the story