REVIEW: “The Secret Life of Pets”

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Illumination Entertainment may not be at Pixar’s level when it comes to box office clout, but their last three animated films have certainly put them into the conversation. 2013’s “Despicable Me 2” brought in $970 million. Last year their spinoff film “Minions” made nearly $1.2 billion. Their latest is “The Secret Life of Pets” and with only five days under its box office belt, the wacky adventure comedy has already earned nearly $175 million.

Chris Renaud, one of the creative minds behind the “Despicable Me” films, directs this examination of the age-old question – what do our pets do while we are away all day? As has become the norm, an all-star cast lend their voices to an array of domesticated (and in some cases not so domesticated) members of the animal kingdom.

The film starts strong by introducing us to a host of pets in a downtown New York City apartment building. It lays out their relationships with their owners and each other while also having fun with the various identifiable pet quirks – a dog gently yelping while having a dream or a cat’s crazed infatuation with a laser pointer just to name a few.

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A little terrier named Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) is the lead character. His top dog status takes a hit when his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) brings home a big shaggy Newfoundland named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). While butting heads at the park the two end up wandering too far into the city where they encounter a feline street gang led by Steve Coogan (that’s funny in itself) and are ultimately caught by Animal Control.

This is where things takes a bit of a dive. Max and Duke are busted out by an underground militant group called “The Flushed Pets”. Their mantra – “liberated forever, domesticated never”. They are led by a fluffy white bunny named Snowball. He’s voiced by Kevin Hart who is basically doing what Kevin Hart always does – giving loud, hyperactive ramblings that just aren’t that funny. And during this stretch the film backburners the fun and charming bits for more run-of-the-mill breakneck animated action.

While that portion of the story sputters, another stays true to the endearing sweetness of the first act. Realizing Max and Duke are missing, the other pets from the apartment building set out to find them led by a prissy Pomeranian named Gidget (Jenny Slate). Add to the band a plump apathetic cat (Lake Bell), a rambunctious pug (Bobby Moynihan), a calm cool dachshund (Hannibal Burress), and a directionally challenged guinea pig (voiced by Renaud).

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The camaraderie between these furry friends is fun to watch. I couldn’t help but laugh at several interactions that emphasized their unique personalities and pet-specific attributes. Renaud and company clearly have a blast playing with so many things that people (particularly pet owners) will get a kick out of.

Several other things help make this an effectively entertaining picture. Alexandre Desplat’s snazzy score amazingly keeps up and sometimes directs the film’s shifting tones. The animation is wonderfully bright and vibrant while still maintaining that silly exaggerated style that I’ve loved in Illumination’s other films. And as expected the voice acting is top-notch.

You can’t help but notice the “Toy Story” inspiration, but “The Secret Life of Pets” has a good enough premise to set itself apart. For most of the film it cleverly sticks with it. Unfortunately the lull in the middle and Kevin Hart’s unleashed performance brings it down a bit, but never enough kill the fun.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3.5 stars

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14 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Secret Life of Pets”

  1. They may be getting as successful box office-wise, but I don’t put Illumination in the same league as Pixar in content or execution. I’ll wait on this one till I can view it from home. Thanks, Keith.

    • Thanks for reading. While I am far more mixed on Pixar than most, I was mainly speaking in terms of box office clout. Illumination seems to have successfully tapped into that huge animated market.

  2. I think the voice cast is good and the score is just fine but it just didnt grab me enough while watching it. I had no idea who the voices were til after the movie was done. Can you imagine an animated episode of Louie featuring these pets

    • That’s an interesting take that I haven’t thought of. I didn’t know all of them either but that has never been an issue with me. I certainly knew Kevin Hart though (unfortunately).

  3. For some reason I am still drawn to this despite now knowing it’s not a truly great one, and that this story seems a little on the lazy side. It’s still a fun concept though, that thought of what our pets are like when we’re gone. And I’ll be honest the comparison to Toy Story never struck me until I read reviews but I totally see it

    • I like this one. Nothing great but my favorite straight animated movie I have seen this year. I think the Toy Story comparison is there but it is pretty thin. I have seen a lot of critics making too much of it. It was never blatant enough to stick out for me. I thought about it a little bit but then tossed it aside.

  4. This was good fun. You mention Alexandre Desplat’s score but what about all the songs? Everything from Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York” to Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” System of a Down, Queen, Bill Withers & Andrew W.K. also appear. I love how diverse it was. Surprised they didn’t release that soundtrack.

    • Hey Mark, great to hear from you. You are so right! The song is definitely deserved mentioning. More than once I cracked a smile just hearing them.

      I know this movie doesn’t have the emotional weight of a Pixar film, but I do believe it’s my favorite animated movie of the year so far. But that’s coming from a pretty picky animation guy.

  5. Hey Keith, so you only liked this a bit more than I did, somehow I thought you’d give it a 4/5. I really wanted to love this one but yeah, the scenes in the sewer just isn’t all that fun to watch. Yeah, definitely has “Toy Story” vibe but having rewatched Toy Story 3 just days after I saw this, this one certainly doesn’t hold a candle to the Pixar masterpiece trilogy.

    • Howdy Ruth! For me that entire sewer sequence brought it to a screeching halt. For that reason I couldn’t get into the 4 star range. I do think it picks up when Max’s friends set out to get him. But just a little to inconsistent though.

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