THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS MAY NOT BE IN THE SAME LEAGUE AS DISNEY OR PIXAR, BUT THERE’S STILL PLENTY TO ENJOY
Director: Chris Renault
Starring: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress and Steve Coogan
Running Time: 1 Hr, 30 Mins
A handful of heavyweights have risen to the top of the animation world over the years. Disney’s in house studio as well as their Pixar brand are easily the top dog (refer to the box office numbers of Zootopia and Finding Dory if you have any doubts) while studios like Dreamworks and Sony’s Blue Sky vie for second place. Universal’s animation division-Illumination Entertainment-is looking to challenge the status quo by building off the enormous success of their Despicable Me/Minions franchise and challenge Disney’s place on top of the animated food chain with the much-hyped Secret Life of Pets. While Pets falls a little short of that lofty goal, it’s still an amusing romp that’s more than worth the price of admission.
Max (Louis C.K.) and his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) live the perfect life in New York. Katie adores Max and Max pretty much worships the ground Katie walks on. When Katie leaves everyday for work (her daily disappearance remains a complete mystery to Max, who tries every day to convince her to stay) Max dutifully waits by the door, eager for her return. While the other pets of the city spend their days partying, watching TV and raiding the refrigerator, Max pines away the hours until his beloved owner returns home.
But one day Katie returns with a new addition to their family-Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a hulking brute of a dog that’s all slobber and fur. Max’s exclusive place in Katie’s life is challenged and he immediately resolves to do everything in his power to get Duke out of their lives and back in the pound where Katie found him. Understandably Duke isn’t a fan of this and becomes determined to get Max out of the picture (strictly as self defense of course). As a result they both find themselves on the streets, trying to get home while on the run from New York Animal Control and Snowball (Kevin Hart), a psychotic rabbit that leads an army of abandoned pets called The Flushed that seek revenge on the human world.
Pets takes some time to get going, spending a good chunk establishing the characters, back story and premise. But when it does get going, it’s a roller coaster of laughs, sight gags and inside jokes. The animators perfectly captured the spirit of the characters and embedded them into their animal likenesses. Whether through body language or facial expressions, the visual imagery sells the character side of story.
Unlike some other animation studios, Illumination cast its voice actors from TV, keeping the budget reasonable (Pets estimated budget is around 75 million compared to the average Pixar budget, which easily surpass the 100 million dollar mark). But that doesn’t subtract from the impact the voices have at all. Albert Brooks is fantastic as Tiberius, the domesticated hawk that constantly wrestles with his predatory instincts while trying to make friends. Louis C.K. does a more then decent job as Max, really selling the conviction of the little terrier’s love for his master and his contempt for his new rival. You can truly tell that Kevin Hart had a blast as Snowball, the sociopathic, murder crazed bunny out for blood. But Jenny Slater steals the show as Gidget, the demur, polished toy poodle with eyes for Max and an addiction to Mexican soap operas. Gidget is the real star of the movie, going from prim and proper, long distance admirer to a pet-of-action, leading the search party for Max who eventually becomes a fierce engine of hand-to-hand combat. And Slater brings her to life with nothing short of perfection.
Pets plot is essentially Toy Story recycled. But instead of toys coming to life when their owners aren’t around, household pets reveal their true selves once their humans have departed for the day. The former favourite has to deal with the strange newcomer but soon they have to join forces to get home safe. Pets succeeds because while the writers borrowed the storyline from another movie, they heavily invested in creating a world of talking pets and vengeful bunnies, and then allowed their characters to explore the comedic boundaries. The jokes (and there lots of them) write themselves.
Unlike Pixar though, Pets doesn’t yank on any heartstrings, though considering the subject matter that’s probably a wise decision (few things are more devastating, especially for a child, then the loss of a pet). It flirts with a little genuine emotion before quickly returning to the jokes. That’s why it fails to reach the same territory as Pixar. Make no mistake, there’s pretty much the same amount of laughs for both kids and adults, but Pixar has perfected the recipe of brilliant visuals, comedy and just the right amount of pathos, while Pets prefers to focus on the laughs.
Pets even opens with an animated short-a new Minions adventure-but it doesn’t have the same presence that Pixar or Disney animated shorts do. It was amusing but not really memorable.
The Secret Life of Pets is a great family movie nonetheless. The kids will love it and the parents will love taking them. It’s a visual roller coaster ride full of laughs and you may never look at a poodle or a bunny the same way ever again. It’s the fun family movie that reminds us why summer is movie season. And while it falls a little short of Pixar, don’t be surprised if Illumination is soon challenging the creators of Toy Story, The Incredibles and Finding Dory for animation’s top spot soon (they’re already hyping their Christmas release Sing). Pets may even have a sequel in it too. If Max and company get into this much hijinks just welcoming a new dog, imagine what could result if one day Katie brought home a husband?