Star Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
In the world of animated feature films, Disney and Pixar are the king and queen. It is still fairly recent that we’ve seen more and more competition coming from Universal Studios’ Illumination Entertainment and Sony Dreamwork’s that has leveled the playing field. After the success of the Despicable Me films and 2015’s Minions Illumination Entertainment has released The Secret Life of Pets, a film that follows Max and his new dog-sibling Duke as they learn to get a long on a journey that takes them all over New York City.
The film opens by introducing our protagonist, Max (voiced by Louis C.K), a small dog who lives in an apartment with his owner, Katie (voiced by Ellie Kemper). The film then takes the time to introduce us to the rest of the main cast, a variety of pets, including a guinea pig, a cat, a few more dogs, and a bird. As each of the pet owners leave, the audience is shown what each of the pets real do when humans aren’t around. When Katie comes home with another dog, Duke (voiced by Eric Stonestreet), Max feels like he has to defend his relationship with his owner and get rid of Duke. Through some crazy circumstances, Max and Duke find themselves lost in the city trying to find their way back to Katie together.
Being a dog owner, this film really hit home with me within the first few minutes. It was hilarious to watch each of the pets “let loose” when their owners left in the first 15 minutes of the film. I could imagine everything the pets said or did being something an actual pet would do (with some suspension of belief). It made it even better that one of my dogs sat and watched the film with us. That being said, I was disappointed when the film started to stretch the limits of reality. There’s a scene after Max and Duke get lost that an alley full of cats picks up Max and tosses him around like he is in a circus act in an attempt to intimidate him. It was a scene that started out funny, but took me out of of the film because it was so comedically forced. Its a scene that breaks the realistic foundation built in the first 15 minutes of the film in favor of slapstick, body-harming, humor. The rest of the film pretty much sticks to the foundation as the pets galavant around the city. The idea of pets doing so many things without people being aware is already funny without adding this type of slapstick.
My only other complaint with the film is that it lacked emotional depth. The story is one that has already been done before in so many other films. It could have been more successful if it gave a little bit more focus on the emotions some of the pets were dealing with. A big theme in the film is pets, or former pets, dealing with belonging and not having their owners anymore. An entire subplot of the film deals with a sewer filled with “flushed-pets,” a revolutionary group led by a rabbit, Snowball (voiced by Kevin hart), who want to see humans destroyed for leaving their pets behind. Duke has an entire backstory about how he accidentally ran away and couldn’t find his way home and was sent to the pound. When Max and Duke decide to find Duke’s owner, it just feels like the film is going through the motions. It’s sad, but not because the director made it sad. It’s sad because the director wants you to fill in the emotional blanks for yourself. If you aren’t a pet owner, this scene will probably be one you gloss over, especially since the film is about Max and Duke learning to live with each other, not Max helping Duke find his owner. All of the Flushed Pets are given backstories, but they aren’t sad. It just seems like a cheap way to give the background characters some emotional depth. The film focused on too many groups of animals that it never seemed like Max and Duke had adequate time to get to know each other, except for the the scene in the sausage factory, which lasted all of two minutes. The film unsuccessfully tried to balance this idea of belonging between pets seeking owners, and Duke seeking Max’ acceptance.
The Secret Life of Pets is a cute film. It looked like it was going to be different, but it ended up being a typical film where a lost pet has to find its way home. There was a lot of potential to be a great animated film, but in the end it was just ok. There were lots of funny moments that felt cohesive with the story, and the director managed to sneak a few subtle jokes in there for the more mature crowd who might be watching, like all of the hipster pet owners on their phones, and the large Youtube cat video. The Secret Life of Pets was a good film that could have been great. Since it is marketed towards the younger crowd, I am confident they’ll love it regardless.