The secret’s out about The Secret Life of Pets. Or, I guess you could say the cat’s out of the bag. Owls will call it a hoot. But staunch critics are likely to go woof, barking at its sense of familiarity.
If you haven’t noticed, this year’s crop of family films has been heavy on land and aquatic animals. We had Kung Fu Panda 3, Zootopia, The Jungle Book, and Finding Dory already. Still to come is Ice Age: Collision Course (yes, they are still making these movies), Pete’s Dragon, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and more animated shenanigans in Sing (which looks like NBC’s The Voice but with anthropomorphic animals).
Illumination Entertainment, the team that gave us the Despicable Me franchise and Minions spin-off, has, in its latest release, given us an answer to that age-old question: What do our pets do when we are away? Okay, so it’s not the most original of ideas; Pixar did the same thing – but with toys – twenty years ago. Max (voice of Louis C.K.), a Jack Russell Terrier, has an idilic life in a Manhattan apartment with owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). His calmness turns to anxiety with the arrival of Katie’s new shiny toy: Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a Newfoundland, rescued from the pound. One thing leads to another at the local park and both Max and Duke are both jettisoned to a world of discarded pets – much like the toys that were donated or hand-me-downs a la Toy Story 3. We also have Max’s friends that attempt to track and rescue Jack Russell Woody and Newfoundland Lightyear before Maggie gets home from work.
Okay, so we have Animal Story released in the dog days of summer. If Pixar can apply Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai to A Bug’s Life, no reason we can’t have The Secret Life of Pets borrow Toy Story‘s narrative skeleton and populate the cast with an array of fluff- and furballs. Unlike Pixar, which likes to push the boundaries of what is possible in animation, Illumination keeps to its simplistic style. Part branding, part familiarity, kids won’t mind the lack of enhancement. And their parents will probably find more to like than they initially expect, even more if they know the trials of owning a pet.
As for what pets do when their overseers are away, the opening scenes refer back to the advertisements that sold audiences on the idea in the first place. The vignettes include Max and some of his friends enjoying themselves without the presence of human companions. We have Chloe (Lake Bell), the passive-agressive – or just plain aggressive – tabby who rejects dry food and craves what she can find in the fridge. Buddy (Hannibal Buress) is a dachshund that has found the counter blender to be his personal masseur. Then there’s Gidget (Jenny Slate), the fidgety white Pomeranian that has been holding back romantic feelings for Max.
When irritation and jealously find Max and Duke in the Big Apple miles away from home, they must reluctantly work together to get back. Along the way they contend with animal control and then a gang of pets, once domesticated and now abandoned (poor sea monkeys), led by bunny rabbit Snowball (a VERY animated Kevin Hart) who is not too keen on being deceived by the two dogs. Upon learning of Max’s disappearance, Gidget forms her own search party that includes the pets above as well as grumpy hawk Tiberius (Albert Brooks moving from the deep blue sea – Bye, Nemo! – and in to the skies) to find him.
The Secret Life of Pets is moderately amusing with plenty of visual gags for children and zingers that will keep parents engaged. The key ingredient is the vocal talent assembled. A varied cast of comedians, Pets gets a shot of adrenaline when Snowball makes his arrival on screen. Kevin Hart, having seen his unreserved energy deposits wasted in comedies like Ride Along and Central Intelligence, is at his scene-stealing best; Snowball is character that will be best remembered.
The craziest, out-of-left-field moment happens late into the proceedings when stomachs start to grumble and Max and Duke smell sausage. No spoilers but it had me wish for the same and watch a Bubsy Berkeley movie. Take that for what it’s worth.
The Secret Life of Pets is light entertainment. It hits the right beats, including some fun catalog music tracks, and moves at a good pace to get you in and out in less than two hours. The lack of a strong emotional punch derides the everlasting flavor, but if it is breezy comedy you want this summer Pets may be the cat’s pajamas.
The Secret Life of Pets (2016) Director(s): Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney Writer(s): Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio Notable Cast: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Albert Brooks Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell, Hannibal Buress, Albert Brooks
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!