UK Release Date: 24th June 2016
Runtime: 87 minutes
Director: Yarrow Cheney, Chris Renaud
Writer: Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch
Starring: Louis CK, Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell, Albert Brooks
Synopsis: When his owner brings home another pet, a dog becomes jealous and upset. They later find themselves stranded in New York, miles from home and in the clutches of a group of psychotic and violent rejected creatures.
Upstart animation studio Illumination Entertainment has built a reasonable standing in the world of children’s cinema with the Despicable Me franchise and the entirely unavoidable minions that it popularised. The time has come, though, for the studio for the branch out and show that they can work outside of their comfort blanket franchise. That film is The Secret Life of Pets, which is an amiable comedy that takes the central conceit of Toy Story and applies it to household pets.
Max (Louis CK) is the epitome of a loyal pet dog for owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). However, when she brings home a big shaggy dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), Max becomes jealous and the two bicker. Their arguments lead them to become lost in New York City one day, where they run into abandoned magician’s bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart) and his sinister gang of ‘Flushed Pets’. Max’s friends, led by lovesick Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate), travel across the city to find the duo before they are lost forever.
The Secret Life of Pets had a lot of buzz behind it after its first teaser trailer, which provided a series of vignettes suggesting a world similar to Toy Story, exploring the world of pets. With that in mind, it’s a little odd that the film is actually far more conventional than that would suggest, following a traditional adventure narrative. It’s rather ordinary in its storytelling, lacking the invention and indeed emotional depth that made Despicable Me work. Sentimentality is Pixar’s wheelhouse, but Illumination has to do better than this if it wants to match the Goliath of the genre.
The strength of The Secret Life of Pets, though, is in its comedy. This is a straightforwardly funny movie that packs plenty of laughs in to its relatively short running time. Many of those laughs come in the opening sequence, which was the star of the teaser trailer, but there’s a steady stream of gags throughout. Louis CK plays the central role surprisingly straight given his status as one of the best modern comedians, but Kevin Hart steals the show with a tremendously psychotic performance as Snowball – leader of the Flushed Pets. The hideously over-cranked character is the perfect vessel for his otherwise irritating trademark style of squeaking insanity.
There are other standouts in the cast, including Lake Bell as the overweight and apathetic cat who doesn’t seem to care much about whether our protagonists make it home or not. There’s also Albert Brooks on brilliantly sinister form as Tiberius – a hawk enlisted as part of the search party, who always has a lingering desire to take a bite out of his new friends.
As a fun night at the cinema, The Secret Life of Pets really delivers. It’s funny, sharp and has an inventive central premise. Unfortunately, it never expands and explores that premise and is inherently forgettable, disappearing from the mind almost as soon as the credits roll. This is disposable kiddie fare and, in a year that has produced Zootropolis and Goosebumps, that simply isn’t good enough.
Pop or Poop?
Illumination is still a relatively young studio and, given that The Secret Life of Pets is only really their second stab at starting a new franchise, it’s a solid piece of work. The jokes land, the concept is interesting and the voice performances are great fun.
Unfortunately, it’s all a little throwaway and disposable. We’re in a golden age of children’s animation, but this one doesn’t quite stack up.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.