After achieving huge success with the Despicable Me films, Illumination Entertainment expanded on that success last year with Minions, a film that gave the goggled dungaree wearing spongey henchmen their own spin off feature. So, what is the next logical step, ahead of their animal musical comedy Sing this Christmas and Despicable Me 3 in 2017? That’s right, everybody’s best friends…pets! From the first trailer onwards The Secret Life of Pets has generated a certain amount of buzz (or should that be purr) from audiences. Featuring genuinely charming trailers accompanied by a few good laughs and with many calling the film “Toy Story with animals”, this certainly could be the best effort yet from the studio. So is it a bit of a hiss take or furfection?
The plot, set in New York City, concerns Jack the Jack Russell Terrier (voiced by Louis C.K.) who leads an idyllic life with his lovely owner Katie (Ellie Kemper), before things are thrown into disarray when she brings home Newfoundland-like mongrel Duke (Eric Stonestreet). As the two struggle to get along, a park incident strands them both on the streets, and as their friends try to find them, Duke and Jack will have to work together to survive persistent animal catchers, streetwise strays out for revenge against mankind and other perils, as they try to get back home. Containing elements of Oliver & Company, Toy Story, Bolt and Up, this animated feature is not quite as good as its influences, nor as poignant as you hoped but still offers a lot of smile inducing fun for the family audience it aims to please…and does.
The Secret Life of Pets is a film bookended by greatness, starting with a real joyful embrace of its core concept. Featuring moments that speak directly to animal lovers, Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio’s script understands animals and the early moments of the film, that has our pets ransacking fridges and tossing around furniture, are brilliant. Likewise the film’s affectionate closing moments really highlight the bond that people share with their pets and warmly reflects that relationship onscreen. Sadly, the issues arise from the central journey the film takes, which struggles to be as funny as the insights into how our beloved pets think and act. There are a lot of enjoyable moments but the concept feels like it could have been utilised more than it was as, much like Lawrence Guterman’s Cats & Dogs, it is a great underpinning for a movie.
Don’t get us wrong; the film is very fast paced and full of energy, with its heart in the right place but despite being billed as Toy Story with animals, the film never reaches such heights on an emotional or sophisticated level. Though there are some neat references to pop culture and film, as well as a well placed gag concerning society’s growing obsession with YouTube cat videos. Still, despite the strong start and finish and a lot of effective action sequences and charm, the main body does miss the mark a few times. However, in spite of some comic missteps and an overthought narrative (it tries a bit too hard to make the story a big city wide adventure when it doesn’t need to be), The Secret Life of Pets does its job in entertaining more often than not.
It helps that the film stars a pleasant cast of characters, with enthusiastic voicework, as Max and Duke become a great screen duo eventually- see a Sausagetopia scene- but Lake Bell’s lethargic and ever so slightly selfish cat Chloe steals scenes aplenty. True the lack of a proper villain in place of Kevin Hart’s rather annoying rabbit Snowball is a bit of a setback but with characters like the sneaky Ozone the Sphynx cat (Steve Coogan), Tiberius the Hawk (Albert Brooks), lovestruck Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) and Pops (Dana Carvey) the paralysed Bassett Hound, there are plenty of characters here to entertain a wide range of viewers, even if some (Ozone especially) deserve more screen time.
The Secret Life of Pets may not be as great as you hoped it would be but it is still a fun little film with animation that is colourful and awash in this sunny hue that makes it really attractive on the eye. However a greater, and slightly unexpected high point, is Alexandre Desplat’s scoring, which is not just a reliably pleasant audible backdrop but is a real Americana score, evoking a ‘60s New York cinema vibe. It is a very smooth and well-worked soundtrack, showcasing moments of dark foreboding, playful whimsy and bustling energy with real panache. The Secret Life of Pets does not innovatively flourish like Rango and Zootropolis, nor does it grasp the heart like Dreamworks’ How To Train Your Dragon films or Pixar’s poignant back catalogue but even in this competitive age of animated cinema, it is a pleasing viewing experience. The film is purely intended as a fun time for animal lovers and this reviewer felt like giving one of his own animals a hug afterwards, so job done really.
THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS / CERT: U / DIRECTORS: CHRIS RENAUD, YARROW CHENEY / SCREENPLAY: BRIAN LYNCH, CINCO PAUL, KEN DAURIO / STARRING: LOUIS C.K, KEVIN HART, STEVE COOGAN, ERIC STONESTREET, ELLIE KEMPER / RELEASE DATE: 24TH JUNE
Expected Rating: 9/10