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.
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).
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