The Secret Life of Pets (2016) (Review)

The Secret Life of Pets has been buzzing around for a while now. I recall seeing a teaser for it a year ago, when Disney Pixar's Inside Out was first released and it has since been in the back of my mind as a film I must check out. Finally, just a matter of days before its North American release, I managed to rush to a packed screening to see whether the hype lived up to the final product. It's a premise that offers an abundance of potential and a wide audience to engage, with the writings suggesting that Illumination (Minions, Despicable Me) have a huge hit on their hands, what with the wide appeal of the story.

Jack Russell Terrier Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) is upset when his owner/soulmate Katie (Ellie Kemper) brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet) a Newfoundland, a larger and reckless dog who Katie has adopted. Their relationship gets off to a rocky start but when the two are captured by Animal Control and must make their way alone through New York, eventually uniting and fighting their way back home to Katie. Along the way, they encounter the devious Snowball (Kevin Hart) and the Flushed Pets who launch an attack against domestics, while Gidget (Jenny Slate) begins searching for Max, the lover of her life, with the help of animal friends of all shapes and sizes. If bells are ringing, it bears some similarities to the Toy Story franchise with the anthropomorphised characters and human characteristics but it just about manages to set itself a part.

The opening few minutes acquaint us with both the pets of the tale - all living with respective owners in a New York block of flats - and the city itself, which helps give the film true identity. This may seem like something irrelevant but by spending these first few minutes offering sweeping shots and montages of the pets and the city really contextualises the film, solidly building characters before we are thrust into the adventure with them. Introducing the pets in their own homes, with their own personalities and owners, help flesh out these characters well enough to support the 91 minute run time, which is brief and snappy and exactly how a family friend animation like this should be. It might tread the same narrative ground repeatedly but we are introduced to enough characters to keep it lively, fresh, and most importantly, exciting, getting whisked away in the adventure of the furry friends (and enemies). It's well-defined by bright and vivid animation, eye-popping colour and detail (even if this proves rather self-referential at times) and charm, mainly through the notion of calling to every pet owner who recognise their own pet through the variety of characters.

The character, although many are painted with broad strokes, are brought to life and characterised by the impressive and talented voice cast, all well selected in reflecting their character traits. Voice casts are never given quite enough credit in animation films, but honestly, they can make or break it and everyone in Pets is impressive. Hart appears to be having so much fun as the haywire villain Snowball and appears to be the only name-above-the-poster name; the rest are relatively conspicuous. A lot of the time, I find not immediately recognising a voice performance in a film more immersive. The whole cast work very well as an ensemble and in embodying the character's personality, ticking a big box in the animation checklist.

But, like with many animations, comparisons are its downfall and unfortunately for this one, it's competing with a studio renown for its quality. Pets, whilst funny and enjoyable in stretches, does not have the humourous edge that make Pixar films so enjoyable for adults as well as children; it almost completely aims for children, which isn't a problem, but Pixar has so excellently struck a balance that Pets doesn't ooze the same confidence in appealing to the masses. As previously discussed, the film is almost a remake of Toy Story, with a little bit of Zootropolis thrown in for good measure; those are two of the biggest animated films ever but we have a sense of being here before, lacking that originality in a summer full to the brim with animated offerings. Don't get me wrong, there is enough to be entertained with in this film, but on a more critical level, the similarities are too evident and the comparisons a little bit too easily made.

The Secret Life of Pets is an enjoyable tale with an interesting premise and whilst it doesn't perhaps fulfil everything one would hope for, it sets Illumination Entertainment on the right track. It is a concept with a infinite line of inspiration and directions to go, should this become the breakout smash I suspect it will. It has a lot to learn but that should come with the studio's progression and will to try new things and stand out from the animated crowd. It's certainly not ground-breaking or original in any way, but it may lead to the next big animation house breaking through.


(I took half a point off because I had to sit through a Minion short film)

Summary: The Secret Life of Pets is an accomplished and enjoyable insight into the lives of our pets, offering a premise that packs potential, even if it is not quite as sophisticated and balanced as its animated counterparts.

Highlight: The opening and closing montage of the owners with their pets works incredibly well and celebrates the bond we share with our own pets.