The Secret Life of Pets is the latest film from the team that brought us Despicable Me, with co-director Chris Renaud having co-directed both Despicable movies. But does The Secret Life of Pets have the same wow factor that Renaud and the team created when they brought those brilliant minions into the world? One has to remember that animated cinema sort of hit a peak in 2016 with Disney’s Zootropolis, which was genuinely unlike any other piece of animated storytelling before it. So in terms of the wider cinematic picture, The Secret Life of Pets knows there is at least an audience (both children and adults alike) who are going to the cinema to see these kinds of films.
Right away though, it is easy to see that The Secret Life of Pets is very much inspired (and this is certainly not a bad thing) by Toy Story, which of course started a whole generation off in the cinema – basically, what do our pets do (rather than toys) when the humans aren’t home? The vast majority of the film therefore doesn’t have human characters in and instead human thoughts, emotions and speech is given to the animals (again some of the biggest and most innovative animation has used this from Zootropolis, to Shaun the Sheep and back to Wall-E).
But the honest question; does it work?
It does work – The Secret Life of Pets is a charming, funny and reasonably exciting bit of cinema. The shame is that for the most part it all seems quite average. It doesn’t really have any memorable lines, the comedy doesn’t quite match those of its contemporaries that really worked themselves for children and adults and whilst the characters are all quite lovely, apart from perhaps one or two, they certainly aren’t as memorable as say Kevin, Stuart and Bob.
The story follows Max (Louis C.K.), a sweet little dog who is entirely devoted to his human, Katie (Ellie Kemper). But when she decides to adopt another dog, a massive dog, Duke (Eric Stonestreet), Max realises life as he currently knows it will be changed forever. Here starts a war between the dogs and as Max decides to become the alpha-dog in the relationship and show who’s boss a series of mishaps means that the pair are rounded up by animal control, escape and end up in the sewers with Snowball, a cute bunny rabbit (voiced by the incredible Kevin Hart) who intends to start an uprising to destroy the human race.
Gidget (Jenny Slate), a white Pomeranian who lives across the street has a crush on Max (who doesn’t even realise it) and decides to employ the help of their friends, Chloe (Lake Bell), Mel (Bobby Moynihan), Buddy (Hannibal Buress), Sweet Pea and a hawk called Tiberius (Albert Brooks) to save Max and Duke before their humans come home and find their pets missing.
The story unfolds in a well paced and straight forward way, ticking all the boxes and playing by the rules – but the best scenes in the film are often those that are slightly odd (a dream sequence with Max, Duke and 100’s of happy sausages), clever (the entire first sequence of the film is pretty much the trailer with the humans leaving the animals at home for the day and seeing what they get up to), dark (when Gidget first meets Tiberius who intends to eat her on his release) or outrageous (a car chase on the Brooklyn bridge with Snowball driving a NYC bus). This is a film with a lot of heart and potential, but with a slightly underwhelming final execution.
As mentioned, a few of the characters really standout and they include neither of the two leads but instead Snowball, who is instantly given the best lines and Hart really pushes his character to a crazy extreme, Gidget who may be doing all this for love but at several moments breaks out of the stereotypical girl in love to become a kick ass character that kicks ass literally and figuratively and Lake Bell’s Chloe, the obese tabby cat, who says she isn’t interested in anyone’s problems but really is always there to help out when needed.
All in all, The Secret Life of Pets is a good watch and it certainly has some great moments of laughter but this writer doubts it will become a classic like Despicable Me.