The Secret Life of Pets (aka Untitled Pets Movie) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
The people at Illumination Entertainment, the studio behind Minions, seem to have dedicated their talents into developing the best animated gags. For The Secret Life of Pets, they’ve developed a wealth of pet gags that open the picture. A cat temps itself with the food in the fridge, a bird pretends to fly with the jets on television and a dog uses kitchen appliance as a back massager. At some point, one of the animators had the great idea of turning this idea into a feature-length film. What they didn’t exactly think through was the story of such a concept that came off more as animated movie screenwriting 101.
This is perhaps the most aggravating aspect of Illumination Entertainment; they will always make movies that are cute to be sure, but well below the emotional resonance of character that every other studio does far better. There’s a decent premise with dog Jack (Louis CK) dealing with the new addition of big dog Duke (Eric Stonestreet). With not enough space for the two of them, they fight each other until eventually losing their way home. Lost on the streets of Manhattan, the two dogs must learn to work together and trust one another to make it back to their master.
You’ve most likely seen this formula plot in half a dozen animated films. As such, you’ve seen this done far better as well. Rather than work to make this duo likable and relatable, The Secret Life of Pets just sort of goes through the motions without any of the grunt work. Every plot element arrives on schedule, tightly wedged between as many pet gags as the movie can muster. There should be a sense of tragedy when Duke discovers his old master is dead, but there’s not build up to this scene. There should be a sense of pleasure when the two break into a sausage factory for a meal, but it only serves as another excuse for a series of gags.
Thankfully, there’s a B-plot that almost saves this movie. Jack has a girlfriend dog Gidget (Jenny Slate) that’s determined and motivated enough to venture out into the city for her love. She assembles a rescue team composed of various pets from an apartment complex. Some are wise old dogs (Dana Carvey), some are dangerous falcons (Albert Brooks) and some are just apathetic cats (Lake Bell). These characters are all very colorful and offer plenty of great comedy, even if they are lacking in any sort of arc.
To offer up a modicum of danger, Jeff and Duke are pursued by a group of anti-owner pets that live in the sewers. Led by a crazed bunny, voiced by Kevin Hart, these pets provides some obstacles with their gang that is all talk. With the scorn of the human world, one would think there would be a little more to such a villain with perhaps some pathos or commentary on human-pet relations. One would be wrong. Kevin Hart simply does his best to be loud and improvisational with his meager character. He leads an army of animals through the sewers to take out all pet owners and pets that refuse to disassociate themselves with their masters. Cultural commentary perhaps? If only the movie were that competent.
One massive improvement over the studio's previous efforts of yellow minions is in the design department. All the pets have varying designs which gives them distinguishable features and real personality. The setting of New York appears big and vibrant with plenty of color. But I couldn't help noticing how devoid of people the city appears when the pets all run amok in its streets during the day. The only humans that seem to be present are dog walkers and dog catchers. Even the humans in traffic don't seem to question a moment when a rabbit drives a bus. Perhaps they've seen too many of these animated movies as well to be shocked or surprised by such a sight.
And now comes that hardest part of the review where I throw my hands up in defeat of Illumination Entertainment. For as much as this movie was formulaic, right up to the overused manic car chase of the climax, I must admit that the movie did make me laugh. For being all about pet jokes, the bits are amusing enough and used well enough that parents won’t be too bored by such a lackluster script. The bookend segments of what pets do when we leave and how they act when we return is when the movie really shines. It’s just that pesky adventure in the middle that displays how little thought the studio put into such a concept.