Amongst some corners of film criticism it is fashionable to hate the films of Illumination Entertainment and whilst some of their films have earned that derision, most notably The Lorax, I am more on board with them, having enjoyed the Despicable Me films and I did find Minions to be one of the funniest films I saw last year. As a result, I was looking forward to The Secret Life of Pets when the first trailer was released, the whole premise looking very promising for a good fun film. After seeing the film, whilst I do think the film is fun, there are some serious issues with the plot, mainly in how heavily it relies on plagiarism. The plot concerns Jack Russel Max, who lives a happy life with his owner Katie, hanging out with the other pets in his block of flats whilst Katie is away for work. This happy life gets upended one day when Katie brings a new dog home with her, a giant Newfoundland named Duke, with Max not getting along with Duke, fearing that he’ll take Katie’s affection away from him. The next day, Max and Duke get lost in the streets of New York after Duke tries to get rid of Max, finding their way to a group known as the Flushed Pets, who have rejected domestication, led by a psychotic rabbit Snowball, who rescue them from Animal Control, but later turn against Max and Duke after finding out that they’re pets. At the same time, the other animals in the block of flats, led by Gidget, a Pomeranian with a crush on Max, set out to find them, recruiting hawk Tiberius and elderly Basset Hound Pops to help them. The biggest problem I had with this film is how much it steals from the Toy Story series. The whole plot regarding Max and Duke is the same as the plot with Woody and Buzz from the first film, the backstory of Snowball is similar to that of Lotso in Toy Story 3 and there is a whole sequence that is a rehash of the When She Loved Me scene from Toy Story 2. As a result, this makes the entire film completely predictable and, in some cases boring. There’s also the problem of a lot of these plot points feeling rushed. What made the dynamic between Woody and Buzz interesting in the first Toy Story is that we see the resentment develop over time which makes the point where they are forced to work together more and their eventual friendship more compelling. Here, the rivalry between Max and Duke lasts for 5 minutes before they have to work together and parts of the film which should be big emotional moments for the characters are dropped minutes later, never to be mentioned again, in order to get to the next plot point. There are many aspects of the characters that are introduced, such as Tiberius’ blood lust and Pops’ crush on the cat Chloe but these only last for one scene before being dropped. That said, the reason the film doesn’t completely fall apart is because of the humour. This is a funny film, whilst I didn’t find it as funny as Minions, I did laugh in the film, the slapstick humour is well done, the opening scene showing what the pets do when their owners are away is excellent, although it being the first trailer for the film did spoil the impact it had, and every scene involving Snowball is comedy gold. This is another comedy where the plot is rushed and doesn’t work, but the jokes somewhat make up for it.
The voice acting is a mixed bag as well. Louis CK is entertaining as Max, but he doesn’t get any good material to work with whilst Eric Stonestreet makes the most of his material as Max, getting some good laughs and almost making the emotional stuff work. Kevin Hart as Snowball is easily the highlight of the film, he’s clearly having fun with how maniacal and insane Snowball is and this fun translates to the audience, even if the film doesn’t quite commit to the insane aspect of Snowball. A surprisingly good performance comes from Dana Carvey as Pops, his voice fitting the character well and he gets some great lines. Other performances though don’t quite work, Jenny Slate is incredibly annoying as Gidget, Bobby Moynihan, Hannibal Buress, Lake Bell, Ellie Kemper and Steve Coogan get nothing to do and I found Albert Brooks incredibly distracting as Tiberius, none of these performances fully work and end up just wasting time in the film.
The technical side of the film is another area in which the film succeeds. The animation for the characters effectively establishes their animal nature whilst giving them some great personality. The background animation meanwhile creates a good sense of life of the New York environment with this mixing effectively with the character animation to create some great gags. The animation also allows for some great surreal gags to come out, which are some of the best in the film, mainly one involving a sausage factory which plays like a cross between the trailers for Sausage Party and the Land of Chocolate scene from The Simpsons, although this isn’t enough to save the rest of the film.
Overall, The Secret Life of Pets is a very disappointing film. What should have been a great comedy in the vein of Toy Story went too far this direction become a generic, predictable rip-off of the Toy Story films, the strong animation, music and some good gags not able to overcome this generic nature. This is a very forgettable film, only a handful of moments being vaguely memorable.
My Rating: 2.5/5