THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS – a review by JJ Heaton

Starring: Louis C.K. (Blue Jasmine), Eric Stonestreet (Identity Thief), Kevin Hart (Ride Along), Ellie Kemper (21 Jump Street), Jenny Slate (Zootropolis), Lake Bell (Man Up), Hannibal Buress (Bad Neighbours), Dana Carvey (Wayne’s World), Albert Brooks (Drive), Steve Coogan (Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa)

Director: Chris Renaud (Despicable Me)

Writers: Brian Lynch (Hop) and Ken Daurio & Cinco Paul (The Lorax)

Runtime: 1 hour 30 minutes

Release Date: 24 June (UK), 8 July (US)

A lot goes into creating a great animated movie. Designing a world, crafting unique-looking characters, getting every nuance of movement and facial expressions just right, the list goes on. It’s an extremely complex process, but at the heart of it all should be a simple but compelling story with a strong moral. Unfortunately, certain films often forget that part, and The Secret Life of Pets is most certainly one of them.

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The idea of seeing how pets act when we’re not around is not a new idea (heck, there’s a dozen reality shows based around that concept), but it’s a humorous conceit that has plenty of potential for not only some fun gags but also an interesting story. The Secret Life of Pets certainly gets the first part of that right and does mine some fun humour out of these animals throwing parties or getting into conversations about pet-centric topics. Tonally, it sets it all up perfectly well, but then it feels like the filmmakers forgot to put any effort into the plot. It’s a fairly basic buddy adventure about a mismatched pair trying to make it home whilst overcoming their differences, but not only is nothing really done to subvert the premise but it forgets to actually say anything by the film’s end. It seems far more concerned with getting to the next gag rather than saying something of importance, which is especially frustrating since so many opportunities to do so are offered on a platter. For example: about two-thirds through the movie, Duke (Stonestreet) reminisces about his relationship with his previous owner. This would be a great moment to add a little emotion and poignancy, maybe even a sweet message about dealing with loss or finding a new home, but instead we get nothing. The moment is cut short before it can be fully resolved in favour of yet another chase scene. The film doesn’t have to be deep on a Pixar level but it does need some kind of substance to feel satisfying, and by the film’s end I felt like nothing had really been accomplished.

Great characters are what also make an animated film stand the test of time, and here The Secret Life of Pets fares a little better at least in terms of the supporting characters. Our main heroes, however, are frustratingly bland. Louis C.K. feels incredibly wasted as protagonist Max, stripped of his trademark sense of humour and yet given nothing to work with in return; he could have been voiced by nearly anyone else and it wouldn’t have made a lick of difference. Eric Stonestreet fairs slightly better as Duke given he at least has a personality and the aforementioned quasi-emotional backstory, but he’s not really that compelling either. The entire film hinges on the rivalry between Max and Duke, but not only is their conflict flat but it just kind of resolves itself without much effort on either of their parts. It really feels like they were going for a Toy Story-like relationship with these two, but that movie had their conflict constantly impact the plot and dealt with issues far deeper than a simple popularity contest, so instead of Woody and Buzz they’ve ended up with Wooden and Blasé. The real entertainment comes from every single other character around them, most of who are only there for comedic purposes but all have far more distinct personalities. Jenny Slate is hilarious as the love-struck and determined Gidget, Dana Carvey gets in a few good laughs as the doddering Pops, Albert Brooks brings some darker humour to the table as the ravenous Tiberius, and Kevin Hart finally gets a chance to play against character as the unstable wrecking ball that is Snowball. Why all the effort in characterisation was put here instead of where it really matters baffles me, but at least the film provided some characters I could get behind.

On a presentation level, this is a pretty damn good-looking movie full of bright, exaggerated designs and crisp, cartoony animation. A lot of the gags rely on visual humour and those really work here, whether it’s something simple like Buddy (Buress) using his elongated body to scale a fire escape or something a little more frantic like Chloe (Bell) finding herself in a Wile E. Coyote-style series of pratfalls. Illumination’s work on the Despicable Me films shines through in these moments, but like with those films they aren’t enough to support the rest of the picture.

There’s nothing particularly bad about The Secret Life of Pets, and if you’re just looking for something to entertain the kids for a while it’s perfectly harmless entertainment. But workmanlike delivery isn’t enough to make you stand out in a crowded marketplace. A good animated film either throws you into a deeply imaginative world full of endless opportunities for humour, or they capture you with ingenious introspection on seemingly mundane aspects of life; the greatest ones manage both. The Secret Life of Pets easily could have done both but just doesn’t bother, which is something Illumination’s products have constantly missed the mark on. If any of their films are to stand the test of time (and many of them haven’t already), they need to change up their game fast or they are going to get swallowed up in the sea of animation studios fast.

FINAL VERDICT: 5.5/10

Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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