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Review: The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

Directed by: Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud

Premise: An animated film. Max (voice of Louis C.K.) lives happily with his owner in a New York City apartment until she brings home a new dog (voice of Eric Stonestreet). When an attempt to ditch his new roommate goes wrong, both dogs end up stranded on the city streets.

What Works: Each Hollywood animation house has its own brand. The Secret Life of Pets comes from Illumination Entertainment, the same studio that produced Despicable Me, The Lorax, and Minions. The Secret Life of Pets is consistent with the Illumination brand in that the movie is light and playful and is very kid oriented. However, The Secret Life of Pets is also considerably better than most of the other films Illumination has produced. The animation takes a step up and it mixes the chaotic inventiveness of the Minions with a more emotionally engaging story and a more credible style; the animals throw parties and socialize like teenagers in a hostel but the design of the animals remains grounded in reality. These cats and dogs are anthropomorphized but the animators also incorporate some of their natural behaviors into the action. The characters of The Secret Life of Pets are a bit more real than other Illumination films in terms of the animation style but also in their interior lives. Max and Duke have some complicated issues and are fully realized characters. The Secret Life of Pets moves along at a brisk pace and the story is told with an energy that surpasses even some of the works of Pixar and DreamWorks. This movie also appeals to the family audience a bit more than some other Illumination productions. Where Minions and The Lorax were oriented toward children, The Secret Life of Pets ought to appeal to both children and their parents. The story is told simply enough that youngsters will follow it but the characters are sophisticated enough to engage older viewers. But more than anyone, The Secret Life of Pets ought to delight animal lovers as it successfully plays on the qualities that pet owners love about their companions.

What Doesn’t: The Secret Life of Pets is Toy Story with animals instead of action figures. This movie follows the template of Pixar’s 1995 film exactly. It begins with Max, a dog who lives contentedly with his owner. But then she brings home a new dog named Duke. Max feels cast aside and schemes of ways to get rid of Duke which results in both dogs stranded on the streets and having to find their way home. Along the way they get into a series of adventures, with animal control taking the place of Toy Story’s Sid (Erik von Detten), and the film concludes with a desperate race involving a van. The two movies are so similar that anyone who has seen Toy Story ought to be able to anticipate every plot twist of The Secret Life of Pets and there is very little about the 2016 film that is surprising. In addition to borrowing liberally from Toy Story, the climax of The Secret Life of Pets is more than a little reminiscent of the Golden Gate Bridge sequence in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and this film entertains some similar ideas about animal liberation. But whenever the movie gets close to something serious the filmmakers retreat to cartoonish comedy. The Secret Life of Pets has a bright and bouncy visual style but a few of the story elements have some dark implications. The villainous animal resistance movement plots to kill Max and Duke and threatens a bloody overthrow of humanity. If this is all supposed to be a joke—since the revolution is led by a fluffy white rabbit voiced by Kevin Hart—then that diminishes the drama. But if the threat is supposed to be taken seriously the style of the movie doesn’t reflect that. The Secret Life of Pets hesitantly reaches for big ideas but unlike Zootopia or The Fox and the Hound the filmmakers never fully embrace the implications of the metaphor.

Bottom Line: The Secret Life of Pets is an entertaining animated picture. The movie is well below the bar set by its competition such as Zootopia and Finding Dory but it ought to satisfy families looking for an evening at the movies.

Episode: #605 (July 31, 2016)