The Secret Life of Pets is the latest release from Illumination, the film studio that unleashed the incomprehensible plague known as Minions upon society via two Despicable Me entries in 2010 and 2013, along with their own eponymous one-joke spinoff last summer. While plenty of moments in Despicable Me & its sequel brought an honest smile to my weathered jowls, the spinoff was an irritating mess, one that didn’t even appeal to the kid in me and, yet, managed to become one of the highest grossing films of all time. Illumination, clearly recognizing the value of their crown jewel, has once again enlisted Chris Renaud, director of all three films, along with writers Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio, for The Secret Life of Pets, a strange movie that, not surprisingly, places the yellow creatures in unnecessary cameos throughout the film and, in many ways, can be seen as a spiritual follow-up to Minions. However, The Secret Life of Pets owes a substantial amount of credit to Disney animated classics such as Toy Story & comedic legends like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, as much as Illumination’s prior efforts-that being said, does this make for an entertaining, well-written, watchable and, simply put, good film?
The truth is, I don’t think so. If you’ve seen the trailer that first introduced us to The Secret Life of Pets almost a year ago, you’ll find that this hilarious clip constitutes only a few minutes of the film-in said trailer, we’re subjected to brief scenes of what pets do when their owners leave for the day, clearly catering to the, “secret life” angle referred to in the title. Indeed, this promising trailer is reminiscent of some of Zootopia’s early marketing-one may recall the still-funny, “Sloth” trailer that kicked off that film’s promotional blitz and in no way served as an accurate representation of what Zootopia was actually about. To a lesser extent, that same phenomenon has occurred here-all further trailers went on to showcase The Secret Life of Pets’ actual premise, which sees Max, a terrier voiced by Louis C.K., who’s been enjoying a happy existence living in New York City with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) until the unwelcome Duke (Eric Stonestreet), another orphaned dog, enters their lives. Thus, an Odd Couple-esque scenario quickly materializes, one that eventually sees Max & Duke separated from their fellow animal friends (featuring, among others, Lake Bell as an overweight cat named Chloe and Parks and Recreation’s Jenny Slate as a Pomeranian named Gidget), captured by Animal Control, encountering an underground society of lost pets led by the deranged rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart) and, in the tradition of every great after-school special from days gone by, learning a little something about themselves in the process.
Yes, the premise is as by-the-numbers as animated films get, with a deceiving title to make one wonder why it wasn’t referred to instead as Max & Duke: Lost In New York, Max & Duke’s Day Out or A Variety Of Housepets On Some Sort Of Adventure. As a result, what could have been a potentially sidesplitting film about what our animal companions actually do behind closed doors becomes something we’ve seen in probably every animated film up to this point, a film where the jokes, sadly, are scattershot and the moments of action are nothing special. Luckily, the animation, while run-of-the-mill for the most part, is acceptable, and the voice acting is quite decent-Louis C.K. and Kevin Hart do their best watered-down versions of themselves in portraying Max & Snowball, respectively, while Jenny Slate provides Gidget with a good amount of pep and the beloved Dana Carvey imports some of his standup background to give his character Pops, an elderly basset hound, some of the best lines in the entire movie. Oh, and Albert Brooks, fresh off Finding Dory, voices a hawk named Tiberius, and whomever played the guinea pig is now my new favorite person. Nice job.
Unfortunately, many of the scenes that connect the fine voice work together are not only cliché, but sometimes a bit confusing-a sequence where Max & Duke find themselves in a sausage factory, whereupon consumption of said items results in bizarre hallucinations, comes off as a perplexingly out-of-place scene, while Duke has moments that touch upon his background and still somehow raise a great deal of unanswered questions than one might expect. There’s even a few parts that seem to oddly borrow liberally from, once again, Finding Dory…keep your eyes open for the bus scene. I’m serious.
I would say that the writing moves the film along, and indeed there are a few jokes that work well-aside from Dana Carvey, Kevin Hart produces a few giggles thanks to a minor plot involving a fallen friend-but these brief moments along with the talented cast are vastly overshadowed by uninteresting parts that either seem lifted from animation history or feel out-of-place altogether. It’s not a bad movie, it’s just nothing special-in hindsight, it’s probably pretty harmless, with the exception of all the parts involving animals talking about killing humans...yeah…there’s that.
Maybe this movie is worth a viewing, maybe not. There’s clearly an audience for The Secret Life of Pets, as the film has met with enough critical and commercial success to warrant a sequel, and I just may be in the minority, much like Zootopia. While the cast keeps the momentum moving right along, too many missed opportunities for consistent humor, too many boring scenes, shoddy writing overall and the realization that the characters could easily be replaced by Minions make for yet another forgettable entry in the space between Pixar’s most recent offering and the latest Ice Age sequel. I didn’t care for it, and that’s no secret.