Illumination Entertainment is the house the Minions made, and they are now expanding beyond their stable franchise with their first non-Despicable Me animated movie – The Secret Life of Pets.
Max (Louis C.K.) is a Jack Russell Terrier, who lives a perfect life with his loving human Katie (Ellie Kemper). When she disappears during the day, Max hangs out with friends. His idyllic life is shattered when Katie brings home a new dog – a big brown bruiser called Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Their rivalry leads to the dogs getting lost in New York, and they have to make their way home – being chased by animal control and an underground group of animals led by a psychopathic white rabbit (Kevin Hart) – while their friends led by Gidget the Pomeranian (Jenny Slate) attempt to find them in the Big Apple.
2016 has offered some great animated movies like Zootopia, Kung Fu Panda 3 and Finding Dory – family films that appeal to a wide audience: The Secret Life of Pets does not match them, aiming more towards a younger audience. Gags are mostly visual, playing on typical pet behavior – my personal favorite being Chloe the obese cat sitting in items that are too small for her and playing with cat toys. These were fun little touches in the animation. However, many of the best jokes have already been shown in the trailers. Some jokes were ripped off from other movies and TV shows such as a fantasy sequence being very similar to Homer Simpson’s daydream of the Land of Chocolate and the dogs obsession of squirrels like the dogs in Up. Others reminded me too much of The Angry Birds Movie – using fantasy sequences – and one joke where one character gets the names of other characters wrong.
Unlike many animated movies who hire a big name cast, The Secret Life of Pets hires a cast of TV actors, SNL cast members and comedians. This works in the movie’s favor for the most part – Louis C. K. made for a fine lead saying what we would expect a dog to say and sounding a lot younger than he really is. Modern Family‘s Eric Stonestreet’s was unrecognizable from his famous sitcom role – his voice being deep and imposing rather than being campy. Jenny Slate has a maniac energy fitting for her role as the energetic little dog, and Lake Bell had the best lines as Chloe – having a sardonic delivery. Albert Brooks was also a delight as the Tiberius the hawk – even if I was thinking at the time ‘where do I know that voice?’
The biggest cast members were Kevin Hart and Steven Coogan. Coogan is turning into a regular for Illumination Entertainment having appeared in Despicable Me 2 and Minions and this time he plays a gangland Sphynx cat who inexplicitly has a Cockney accent. But for someone who finds Hart to be no more than short Chris Tucker his Snowball the rabbit was a character trying to be funny by thinking shouting and screaming is enough.
The Secret Life of Pets is essentially like Toy Story and The Incredible Journey – a movie where we see what our pets get up to when their owners are away and with other pets trying to get back home. There is nothing wrong for movies to use similar storylines – it is bound to happen, especially for big budget and family films who have to play it safe. But The Secret Life of Pets has story beats that can be seen from miles away – particularly involving Duke’s back story. Only the youngest audience members would be surprised by the movie. Also with the invention of YouTube, we can watch animals getting up to crazy antics anytime we want.
The animation is fantastic as would be expected from a movie like this. Chris Renaud, the director of the Despicable Me movies, and Yarrow Cheney, Despicable Me‘s production designer go to great lengths to replicate New York City, and the animals are cute creations – particularly Gidget who is a white puffball. There will be a lot of stuffed toys made of these characters.
The Secret Life of Pets is a kid friendly film where only children below the age of four may find the movie too intense: that is a scene involving a snake. There is little on offer for an adult audience: there was only sporadic laugher at the screening I attended. Illumination Entertainment are masters at marketing and merchandising, and they should make a lot of money from this movie’s related products.
The movie also comes with a short film Mower Minions. It is a quick slapstick affair where everyone’s favorite yellow being starts a gardening business, and their accident prone ways make it a fun little diversion. The Minions work best in short burst.