The Secret Life of Pets (2016) – Movie Review

The Secret Life of Pets
Directed by: Chris Renaud & Yarrow Cheney
Written by: Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio
Starring: Louis C.K, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart, Lake Bell & Ellie Kemper
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Certificate: U
Release Date: June 24th 2016

For a short while, the only animation studios in town were Dreamworks and Pixar. There really wasn’t much in the way of competition for the two companies with Disney stumbling their way through 3-D animation and budgets growing too big to allow competing companies to start up and realistic compete with them. But then, after Disney made a comeback and the budgets for polished 3-D animated films started to become more manageable, more challengers began to emerge. Companies like Blue Sky Studios, ToonBox Entertainment and LAIKA have all made dents in the marketplace but the strongest up-and-comer, by far, has been Illumination Entertainment.

After making a billion-dollar franchise with ‘Despicable Me‘, which spawned a sequel, a spin-off and another sequel coming in 2017, all eyes are on what other original properties they’ll be bringing to the table. Before ‘Despicable Me 3‘, they’ve got two; ‘The Secret Life of Pets‘ and ‘Sing‘ (which will be released in January 2017 in the U.K.). Loaded with comedic voice-actors and an attention-grabbing premise (“What do your pets do while you’re away?”) anticipation is high. Is this movie truly a promising new original franchise or just something else to be milked like the Minions?
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Max the Dog (C.K.) is living a perfect life with his owner Katie (Kemper) is a New York apartment. However, that’s interrupted when Katie brings home a huge, clumsy dog named Duke (Stonestreet) and Max has to start sharing attention with him. An attempt to get rid of Duke causes him and Max to both get lost on the streets of New York and embroiled in the exploits of a rabbit named Snowball (Hart) and his group of abandoned pets who plan to rise up and kill all humans. Max and Duke have to escape “The Flushed Pets” and find their way home and a group of other pets from the same apartment complex are on the hunt for the duo as well.

If you have any semblance of cinema experience, you’ll probably realise that this plot is almost identical to Pixar’s ‘Toy Story‘. You’ve got the status quo where the main character is committed to their owner/master and the status quo is disrupted through the inclusion of a secondary, conflicting character. The arrogance of the lead causes the two to get lost, they come across a group of similar people who have been abused or abandoned by their previous owners and they have to get back home. Meanwhile, in the background, friends of the lead character try to find a way to get them back home and the whole thing ends in a car chase involving a truck. It doesn’t even feel like ‘The Secret Life of Pets‘ is paying homage to ‘Toy Story‘, it just feels like it’s blatantly stealing from it.
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Now, on paper there’s nothing inherently wrong with copying a previous formula or having a similar plot structure. But putting ‘Toy Story‘ and ‘The Secret Life of Pets‘ next to each other just showcases how good ‘Toy Story‘ is and how bland and mediocre ‘The Secret Life of Pets‘ is. After a strong opening 5 minutes which has almost no dialogue and just shows what the pets in this apartment complex get up to once their owners leave (which is basically the film’s original teaser trailer and is easily the best part of the film), the movie just settles into a steady groove of mediocrity and never rises above it. It’s ‘Toy Story‘ but the characters are bland, the jokes are rarely funny, it’s never insightful and it just feels so…meh.

The only time the movie tries to punch above its own weight is a late-in-the-game reveal about Duke’s backstory and his history but not only is it set up in a near identical fashion to Pixar’s ‘Up‘ but it’s just explained away by a brand new character as opposed to having the audience experience the emotional roller-coaster WITH Duke and then it never comes into play again. It feels like such a faux attempt at deeper meaning.

Even the sub-plot about flushed away pets feels ripped-off from ‘Flushed Away‘. I normally don’t try and pick apart films based on their influences but ‘The Secret Life of Pets‘ doesn’t add anything on top of what it’s shamelessly stealing from.
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But going back to the opening few minutes which is basically the film’s trailer, there’s a lot of clever visual humour there, there’s a lot of gags that work, a lot of fun, subtle expressions from the characters and the humour and situations are relatable. If you own a pet and watch the first few minutes of ‘The Secret Life of Pets‘ then a lot of the gags will surely stick with you. But then the movie jumps the shark once the adventure begins with a lot of action set-pieces with oddly realistic violence.

This isn’t “Looney Toons”, there’s a lot of punches and kicks and fights and chases with vehicles, one character gets crushed to death at one point and it feels so out of place with the grounded, compelling base-premise. There’s a lot of violence in ‘The Secret Life of Pets‘ and a strangely mean-spirited underbelly lies beneath it as well with the inclusion of “The Flushed Pets” who describe graphic ways to kill their previous owners. There’s also a lot of falling sequences; like, about a dozen scenes that involve the characters falling from a great height for the 3-D effects. There’s one sequence that spends about 2-3 minutes getting the characters to a great height JUST so they call fall again.
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One reason the film just fails to connect emotionally is because there’s so many characters in the film. We have Max and Duke who interact with Snowball and that’s plot-A. But with plot-B we have about a dozen pets in the apartment who go out looking for their friends and with the exception of Gidget, a Pom Dog who has a crush on Max and leads the search-party, none of the characters have anything to do but the film just keeps adding more and more of them.

There’s potential jokes to be wrung out of these characters like Albert Brooks as a hawk who Gidget convinces to help them as long as he doesn’t eat any of their friends. But once his genuinely enjoyable introductory scene is out of the way, he just walks around with the rest of the crew and has nothing to contribute. There’s no mention of his promise to not eat the other pets he just walks around with very little to say. What a waste of Albert Brooks and what a waste of time and resources. Chloe the Cat voiced by Lake Bell; pointless. Buddy the Sausage Dog voiced by Hannibal Buress; pointless. Norman the Guinea Pig voiced by Chris Renaud; has nothing to do and we have a small bird which also has nothing to add to anything. There’s so much waste and fat to this movie.
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Speaking of a waste of actors, the cast here are…serviceable. They’re fine. They read their mediocre dialogue but do little to breathe life into these one-note characters. Kevin Hart is clearly having fun voicing Snowball, but it’s the same Hart schtick we’ve heard a thousand times before. The vocal standout here is Eric Stonestreet who gives Duke a natural warmth but the character is too bland to really bring out much more from him.

You probably think I hate ‘The Secret Life of Pets‘, but I don’t. There’s a couple of clever lines and the opening few minutes are fun but the rest of the film feels so made-by-committee. It feels like Illumination Entertainment and Universal had a meeting with a big dart-board of popular things in kids movies and just threw in a load of random elements, designed the characters with the priority of making plush toys out of them, slapped together a narrative from some of their favourite movies (‘Toy Story‘, ‘Up‘, ‘Flushed Away‘ a sequence ripped-off from ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘ etc.), got a bland pop-song in the movie written by Taylor Swift and called it a day. It’s hard to get worked-up against something that feels THIS manufactured.
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It also doesn’t help that the movie contains product placement for Illumination Entertainment’s own movies as the film has numerous nods to the Minions and there’s even a poster for ‘Sing‘ on a bus near the end of the film. This isn’t like Pixar hiding a Buzz Lightyear toy in the background and you need to freeze-frame the movie to find it. These are blatant and in-your-face pieces of advertising. It’s actually pretty gross.

Which is a shame because when it comes to the rest of the visuals, the film looks better than its $75M budget would imply. Yeah, the characters look like they were designed as toys first and not actual indicators of their personalities or extensions of the voice-actors, but ‘The Secret Life of Pets‘ renders a beautiful looking autumn New York City. It’s so often you see New York in Summer or Winter but here you get wonderful oranges and it makes the film feel visually unique. It’s a polished looking film and the laid-back music from Alexandre Desplat is well done and infused with jazz and lounge motifs to compliment the domestic settings.
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The best parts of ‘The Secret Life of Pets‘ (aside from its visual depiction of New York City in Autumn) is the opening 5 minutes and the closing 5 minutes where it actually explores the human connection to pets and what the animals get up to when humans aren’t around. The rest of the film is a carbon-copy of ‘Toy Story‘ with elements of ‘Up‘ and ‘Flushed Away‘ and a bunch of generic dialogue and lacklustre slapstick. There’s nothing offensive about the film aside from its waste of talented actors but it feels like such a manufactured piece of entertainment that it’s hard to get invested in this shark-jumping story. At the end of the day, ‘The Secret Life of Pets‘ feels soulless and that’s disappointing considering that the bond between pets and their owners is ripe for heart-warming storytelling and inventive visuals. But you won’t find those here.

I give ‘The Secret Life of Pets‘ 2 stars out of 5.

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Posted In: 2016 Reviews Current Reviews Reviews

Author: Trilbee

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Posted: 6th Jan 17

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