Illumination Entertainment, the animation production company that made a name for itself by liberally borrowing from Megamind to create Despicable Me, is back to liberally borrow from many other movies — most notably, Toy Story, Stuart Little, and Oliver & Company.
Learning the wrong lessons from the success of Despicable Me (as only a studio that decided to create the Minions spinoff could), The Secret Life of Pets is cuteness and brief excitement blown up across feature-length. As such, it’s distractingly bright and enjoyable while it’s barrelling toward its end credits, but fleetingly forgettable the moment it finishes.
The Secret Life of Pets starts wonderfully, showing all the hilarious activities it posits our pets do when we’re not around, which populated the trailers. Once the characters start showing their personalities, though, a lot of the creative wind goes out of the movie’s sails.
Max (Louis C.K.) is a cute, optimistic terrier whose life revolves around loving his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) when she’s home and waiting for her when she’s gone. Katie comes home late one evening, with a new addition to the household: a shaggy lug of a rescue dog, Duke (Eric Stonestreet), who quickly starts upsetting Max’s world of routine and undivided attention.
Like in Toy Story and Stuart Little before it, The Secret Life of Pets then turns into a movie where the comfortable toy/cat/dog can’t get along with the new toy/mouse/dog and drives them away, only to find themselves stuck together and bonding before the tale’s inevitable end.
Most of the issues with The Secret Life of Pets aren’t obvious while it’s going, but the manic pace the movie has to keep up to prevent you noticing them gets downright exhausting by its ridiculously preposterous climax. (Kevin Hart, as a sociopathic rabbit named Snowball, comes the closest to keeping up with the film’s careening speed.)
The Secret Life of Pets is designed not to tell an entertaining story or even to be consistently funny, but simply to be manic enough, colourful enough, and loud enough to distract children for an hour and a half — which, if nothing else, nobody could really say it does poorly.
The animation is fun, with cute character designs and bold colour choices, though it achieves all those qualities with the wrong motives. The all-star cast of comedians seems impressive, until you realize that many of them are either wasted — one person in my theatre uttered, “Ellie Kemper was in this?” — or disguised to the point of unrecognizability. (Another person: “Wait, who did Eric Stonestreet play?”)
While the voices aren’t as noticeable as they could be, the product placement in The Secret Life of Pets sure is. Not only are there actual name-brand products distractingly used by characters, but very blatant ads for two future Illumination Entertainment movies, Sing and Despicable Me 3. The feature itself is even preceded by a Looney Tunes-style Minions short, just in case you’d somehow forgotten they exist.
Of course, just to remain inconsistent, the innocent moments within The Secret Life of Pets are spliced with random shocks of darkness that seems sharply out of place. Watching it could well give you whiplash, between the overly saccharine moments of cuteness and pink fluff, and the disturbingly dark material involving abused strays and unexpectedly violent characters. (At one point, an extraneous human character is literally killed, with the movie not even slowing down to acknowledge it.)
None of these faults would stand out so prominently were it not a mere four months since the release of Zootopia, which did so much of this material in ways that were smarter, funnier, and less dependant on pee jokes. The Secret Life of Pets is incredibly fun — there’s no denying that — but fun, even bright fun involving cute animals, still isn’t enough to make a good movie all by itself.
The Secret Life of Pets is the 90-minute equivalent to someone squeaking a really colourful, really loud dog toy in your face: distracting enough while you’re watching it, but once the squeaking stops, you wonder how you were so easily entertained by something so hollow and lifeless.