The best thing I’ve heard about Illumination Entertainment’s latest animation entry, The Secret Life of Pets, is that it’s cute. Usually I would require more than that in order to grant a film a chance, especially when it’s from the same production company that barfed out Minions and Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, but at a time when everyone is fighting each other vehemently about sexism and Ghostbusters, I felt I needed to go see something innocent and postpone my thoughts on the spectre chasers to this Friday.
The Secret Life of Pets is, well, what it says on the label. It’s a family film with a premise similar to that of Toy Story, although instead of showing us what dolls and action figures are up to when no-one’s looking, it focuses on our domesticated animals and their secret hijinks. This story has already been done in some ways (Cats and Dogs and the B plot on most episodes of Phineas & Ferb come to mind), but Secret Life offers a fresh and good-humored take. More or less.
Our hero is a joyous Jack Russell terrier named Max (Louis C.K.), who grows jealous after his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) gets herself a new pet, an unkempt mongrel named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), and starts directing more of her affection and attention towards the mix-breed. In true Woody the cowboy fashion, Max tries to see to it that Duke is gotten rid off and left to get lost in the city. But as Max lures him there, both of them are attacked by a league of alley cats commanded by Ozone (Steve Coogan) and have their collars forcibly removed. The two are consequently captured by Animal Control, but are soon set free by a vindictive rabbit known simply as Snowball (Kevin Hart), who was a rebellion against humanity planned. He sways Max and Duke into joining his army and striking back against those who abandoned them, even though the truth is quite different. Using cuteness as his “cover”, Snowball is undoubtedly one of the funnier characters in the film.
Meanwhile, Max and Duke’s friends from home (and some others) set out on a rescue mission of sorts. These pet pals include a pomerian named Gidget (Jenny Slate), a pug named Mel (Bobby Moynihan), a weiner-dog named Buddy (Hannibal Buress), a disinterested cat named Chloe (Lake Bell), a guinea pig named Norman (Chris Renaud), a parrot named Sweet Pea (Tara Strong), and a hawk named Tiberius (Albert Brooks). Also among them is Pops, a very old Basset Hound voiced by Dana Carvey. As someone who believed that Carvey’s career was assassinated completely by Master of Disguise, I found it strangely reassuring to see his name in the credits.
The characters are many and they’re all memomarble in their own respective ways (even when he looks like a dog, it’s damn hard to dislike Louis C.K.). As many critics have pointed out, it does just enough to be lovable that you excuse the fact that it follows the beats of Toy Story to an almost suspicious degree (the part where a group of friends go searching for the protagonists seems lifted from its sequel). Toy Story is still the better film, of course, but I’ve no problem recommending The Secret Life of Pets as a harmless, good-natured family film. The other option right now is Ice Age 5 so I’d guess it isn’t much of a contest.
A word of warning, however: the film likely won’t connect with you emotionally as much as it enthralls you with its action. The characters are memorable because they have funny personalities and not because you meaningfully get to know them. Although to reference the more recent Ice Age installments again, I wouldn’t say it ever gets quite so bad in terms of how much character development is shoved to the side for the sake of fast-paced action and exaggerated slapstick scenarios. Also, when there is physical comedy, this film executes it better and is in general more clever than both Ice Age and The Angry Birds Movie – another animal-centric animation from this year.
Speaking of, I think I hardly need to comment on how stellar the animation is or how lifelike some of these textures appear. Computers are getting better and better, especially when they get to render entire enviroments from scratch. Somehow, films that are comprised of mostly CGI but are fudamentally “live action” have a tendency to look less lifelike than completely animated movies that aren’t meant to look real in the same sense. I think I liked the animals in this movie more than I did those in The Legend of Tarzan, much like how Rango looks miles upon miles more astounding than literally any Hobbit movie.
My only problem with it is something I’ve noticed a lot in animated movies starring anthropomorphic creatures (Rango being an exception), which is the characters’ eyes. I’ve never liked how they’re usually just plain white without visible blood vessels or tear ducts. This happens a lot to human characters too; maybe realistic eyeballs simply look more frightening?
In my official capacity as objectively right about everything, I am giving The Secret Life of Pets a rating of 3/5 whatevers. I invite you to stay tuned for more movie reviews, as I will attempt to see Independence Day 2 and The BFG very soon. And probably that movie about ghosts that’s going to totally suck and also ruin geek culture or whatever it is I’m supposed to be afraid of. I’ll go around and recommend this year’s third “talking animal” movie to people until then.