Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
The Secret Life of Pets is a CG-animated family comedy film released in 2016. It was directed by Chris Renaud. The film follows the misadventures of Max, a Jack Russell terrier in New York who finds himself at odds with his owner's new pet, an oversized mongrel called Duke. The film stars the vocal talents of Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart and Jenny Slate with supporting turns from the likes of Steve Coogan, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell and Dana Carvey. The film was a box office smash all over the world with global takings of more than $875 million, success which led to a sequel being released in 2019. Critics gave the film a generally warm reception, although several did point out the similarities in plot between this and Toy Story. The home release of the film also includes two short movies: Norman Television and Weenie.
What's It About?
Max is a young Jack Russell loving his life with his owner Katie in their New York apartment. He spends his days waiting patiently for Katie to come home from... wherever it is she goes and also interacting with other pets in the neighbourhood including dim-witted pug Mel, morbidly obese tabby cat Chloe and Pomerian Gidget, who is besotted with Max herself. One day, Katie returns to the apartment with a surprise new addition - an overgrown, shaggy Newfoundland called Duke - who Katie insists is Max's new 'brother'. The pair of them fail to get along almost immediately as Max is jealous of Duke's sudden co-opting of Katie's affections and Duke enraged by Max's attitude.
Enjoying the park one day, Duke attempts to lead Max into trouble by abandoning him in an alleyway but the pair are ambushed by a gang of vicious street cats led by ugly Sphinx cat Ozone. After a brief scuffle, Max and Duke have their collars removed and are quickly picked up by two members of Animal Control who take the pair back to the pound, somewhere Duke is all too familiar with. However, they are unexpectedly rescued by a group of animals known as the Flushed Pets who are led by former magician's rabbit Snowball, who has dark and violent plans for human pet owners everywhere...
Main Cats... I mean, Cast
|Actor||Role (voice performance)|
Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio & Brian Lynch
Release Date (UK)
24th June, 2016
Animation, Comedy, Family
What's to Like?
I'm not a huge fan of the animation style preferred by Illumination Entertainment, if I'm honest. The human characters lack any sense of realism with elongated limbs and inflated faces and this film also uses this art-style. Thankfully, human characters are kept to a minimum but the animal characters also share the same facial qualities with bulging eyes and wide, expressive mouths. However, there is also much to admire about the film's visuals - backgrounds look fantastic with New York City itself looking amazing while water and fur look especially realistic. It's a curious blend of cartoony visuals and photo-realistic backdrops but it's bright and energetic enough to entertain younger viewers, the film's obvious intended audience.
The film certainly offers up plenty of characters, many of whom fit the personality given to them by their human voice actors. As much as it may rankle some, Louis C.K. does a good job of voicing Max (he would be replaced by the ever-reliable Patton Oswalt in the sequel) while Stonestreet brings a homely warmth to the role of Duke. The supporting cast do well but don't get much in the way of moments to make a really lasting impression. Kevin Hart works hardest as Snowball, who rolls in and dominates proceedings from his first scene but I didn't think the character was well written. I had questions about his motives, his plans and his decisions which the film failed to answer. And sadly, this wasn't where my issues with the film ended...
- Snowball's emotional references to Ricky (a duck who tragically died sometime before the events of the film) is an allusion to Boyz N The Hood, something Kevin Hart also does in the 2015 film Get Hard.
- The film features plenty of references to other Illumination pictures. A poster for Sing can be seen on the back of a bus, Gru from Despicable Me can be seen walking his dog in the background and two characters goes to a party during a mid-credits scene dressed as one of the Minions and the Barbaloot from The Lorax.
- The film's success made it the most profitable film released in 2016 as well as one of the most successful films based on an original property, behind just Avatar, Zootopia, 1994's The Lion King and Finding Nemo. It also set the record for the largest opening ever for an animated film, beating the previous record held by Inside Out.
What's Not to Like?
It's hard to put my finger on exactly why but The Secret Life of Pets doesn't quite manage to succeed in the way you hope. The film's best scenes are those depicting the pets occupying themselves when the owners are out such as the clearly refined and pampered poodles rocking out to System of a Down. The film's story of a mismatched duo finding friendship through adversity is such a well-worn cliché in animated movies at this point that it has been a staple of the genre since the very first one, Toy Story, back in 1995 - in fact, it's probably older than the majority of this film's audience! There are a couple of nods to entertaining adult viewers but on the whole, the film rarely catches fire in the way a Pixar film does. It's not that funny and the overly familiar narrative doesn't help maintain your interest in proceedings. It feels, dare I say it, boring.
The film has too many speaking parts which, while it keeps things moving for kids, results in characters who feel underwritten and the film feels cluttered and chaotic. Of course, that is often deemed acceptable for family films but a film's quality isn't measured by how much is going on. I wanted something to stir me from my slumber, to engage me with subplots that could have been different instead of stuff we've seen hundreds of times before. I wanted Hart's maniacal bunny to strike a chord in me like the evil Syndrome from The Incredibles but alas, he keeps in the same gear as the rest of the film and doesn't push things forward. There's nothing especially bad about this film but I wanted more - perhaps I got suckered in by the trailer (which shows the aforementioned opening scenes I spoke about earlier). After all these years and countless films, you'd think I'd avoid that trap by now!
Should I Watch It?
The Secret Life of Pets is an inoffensive and familiar animated film that offers more talking animals than a Disney marathon. For younger viewers, it offers plenty of fun and enjoyable characters but older viewers will feel the film follows a well-trodden path and doesn't offer anything new, wasting its promising premise. It's therefore far better suited to children than their parents, who would prefer something more rounded and universal like much of Pixar's previous output.
Great For: children under the age of 12, pets owners, fans of other Illumination Entertainment pictures
Not So Great For: older audience members, anyone with high expectations, surviving Louis C.K.'s career suicide
What Else Should I Watch?
Few can argue that Illumination haven't enjoyed success at the box office with both this and Despicable Me becoming huge money-spinners for the studio. Unfortunately, they are on less solid ground when trying to adapt Dr Seuss - both The Lorax and The Grinch made less than half made by Minions - while the less said about their biggest failure (the barely remembered Hop), the better. And while it's easy to dismiss the studio for repeating formulaic franchises, there is a reason why they find success. Despicable Me is a great little send-up of spies and superheroes, focusing on the put-upon baddies just trying to make a name for themselves and the youngest of viewers will squeal with delight at the slapstick antics of the yellow-skinned Minions and their almost exclusive love for bananas and random violence.
I don't care about being accused of Pixar bias because for a while, they were just the best at producing CG animated family films. Of course, they have had misfires - Cars 2 springs to mind. But with films like Finding Nemo, WALL-E and The Incredibles in their back catalogue, all of which are beautifully animated and great fun for viewers of all ages, you'd be mad not to consider them for any family film night.
© 2021 Benjamin Cox