Illumination Entertainment has had a highly successful last few years courtesy of the Despicable me series and its Minions spin-off which was released last year grossing over $1 billion worldwide. Now looking to consolidate that success with their newest venture The Secret Life of Pets which revolves around what the pets get up to when their owners leave for the day.
A terrier named Max (Louis C.K) has a perfect life with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) until one day she returns home with another dog, Duke (Eric Stonestreet), who threatens to upset the stability of Max’s life. Whilst out being walked the pair get lost and end up being captured by animal control but are freed by the psychotic bunny rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart). With Max gone his friends the tabby cat Chloe (Lake Bell), the pug Mel (Bobby Moynihan), the dachshund Buddy (Hannibal Buress) and the Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) set out to rescue him.
The immediate concern that comes to mind is that The Secret Life of Pets shares a similar concept with that of Toy Story, that when the owner isn’t present the pets/toys have a secret life of their own. The lead character Max/Woody lives an ideal existence with their owner Katie/Andy until a new arrival Duke/Buzz upsets the balance of their life. A lot of films follow similar narrative constructs but when you make an animated feature with such striking similarities to a movie as infamous as Toy Story then it is difficult to ignore the similarities. The films strengths lie mostly in its comedic energy with a fast paced multitude of gags flowing thick and fast. Not all of the jokes land but enough of them are amusing enough to keep you entertained throughout with the high energy levels of the voice actors playing a large part in the success of the comedy. Kevin Hart’s performance as Snowball is one of the more obvious examples and a lot of the films marketing has highlighted Hart’s role as the maniacal bunny rabbit. Equally worthy of praise are Jenny Slate’s boisterously fierce Gidget, Lake Bell’s obnoxiously arrogant Chloe and Albert Brooks as the hawk Tiberius who suffers from a lonely existence due to his tendency to eat all of the other animals he meets.
The problem with The Secret Life of Pets that stop it from reaching the levels of other animated fare like that of Pixar, Ghibli, Disney, Laika or even Illuminaton’s Despicable me series is that it lacks the dramatic cohesion and pathos of better films. Half way through an emotional subplot is introduced that threatens to tug at the heart strings but is shoddily mishandled, not given the time needed to develop the proper empathetic response.
There’s a lot of work clearly been put in the The Secret Life of Pets with a large ensemble cast who all bring a high level of enthusiasm to their roles imbuing their characters with zest and energy. The animation is sumptuous and slick with some gloriously designed wide shots of the cityscape and Alexandre Desplat’s musical score is vibrant and manages to compliment the energy of the film. The films plot is somewhat recognisable to older audiences and it doesn’t have the dramatic weight or clever subversions of the best animated features but as a 90 minute comedic romp it delivers enough laughs to keep you on leash.