Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG for Action and some Rude Humor
Directed by: Chris Renaud & Yarrow Cheney
Written by: Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio
Voices of: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Bobby Moynihan, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Steve Coogan, Albert Brooks & Tara Strong
THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS is one of the biggest box office hits in an otherwise lackluster summer movie season. Honestly, is anyone surprised about this film’s success? After all, the adorable teaser trailer has been attached to almost every major theatrical release since last July (when it premiered in front of MINIONS). SECRET LIFE OF PETS is sure to appeal to animal lovers, pet owners and children who want to sit through a goofy cartoon. However, it isn’t anything special. Instead, this animated film is slightly above average thanks to stellar animation and a few big laughs, but falls victim to a number of irritating problems.
Max (Louis C.K.) is a terrier living with his loving owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). They’ve got a sweet relationship together and that becomes strained when Katie adopts large shaggy Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Max and Duke don’t get along, much to Katie’s naivety. The escalating feud between them eventually gets the two canines lost in New York City. To make matters worse, Max and Duke are being pursued by a group of anti-human animals led by psychotically adorable bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart). While Max and Duke desperately try to find the way back to Katie’s apartment, Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) and a group of her friends attempt to rescue Max. This leads to a bunch of animal hijinks, ridiculous moments, and a sentimental heartwarming message. You know. Everything you’d expect in a children’s film.
Family entertainment can be absolutely fantastic. Just look at the Disney Renaissance, a few of DreamWorks’ more original efforts, and pretty much every Pixar movie before 2011. Illumination Entertainment is clearly trying to set itself up as a tentpole for animated kids’ films. With MINIONS being a monster hit last summer, I’d say they’ve cemented that reputation at the box office with SECRET LIFE OF PETS. This film currently holds the sixth-largest animated debut, the sixth-highest July weekend debut, and the fourth-biggest opening weekend for Universal Studios. Monetary success aside, SECRET LIFE OF PETS is a somewhat bland, forgettable tale that pretty much rips off TOY STORY and replaces the toys with pets.
The film’s stellar animation should be commended in being vibrant, colorful and far exceeding the quality of its sloppy script, but the cast of characters range from being hilarious to 100% forgettable. Unfortunately, Max and Duke fall into the latter category. They’re pretty much Woody and Buzz in dog bodies, but without any of the charisma or chemistry that made those two characters so fun to begin with. A handful of supporting players wind up stealing the show and deliver far more laughs than the two leads. The biggest stand-out is definitely Snowball, who is cute to look at and raving mad underneath his fluffy white appearance. Kevin Hart was a perfect choice for this role and lets his voice go hilariously over-the-top with glee and frequent mood swings.
There are a few other noteworthy side characters. Another highlight is Gidget, who becomes determined to find Max after watching a cheesy soap opera. Albert Brooks voices Tiberius, a hawk who’s constantly trying to keep his predatory instincts in check around the other animals. The hungry expression on this bird’s face during some of the smaller scenes makes for a few chuckles. Steve Coogan’s hairless cat Ozone is quite underused, but has two good scenes nonetheless. Finally, Dana Carvey voices elderly basset hound Pops and has one of the best jokes in the entire film. The same cannot be said of the bland canines voiced by Bobby Moynihan and Hannibal Buress as well as an apathetic cat voiced by Lake Bell.
In spite of clocking in under 90 minutes (counting credits), PETS has frequent dull patches where the momentum runs thin and laughs are absent. The humor in PETS really excels when it’s pointing out little observations about pets and their human companions. Two montages (one in the opening, another in the closing minutes) are sure to tug at the heartstrings of anyone who’s ever owned a pet of any kind. These two sequences were beyond cute and made me want to play with my dogs as soon as I got home from the theater. SECRET LIFE OF PETS is bland in its main characters, has shaky pacing, and shamelessly rips off the TOY STORY trilogy. Still, the vibrant animation, jokes that do work, and colorful side characters make PETS into a fun, though underwhelming, experience that is far more likely to entertain children than parents.