by: S. Scott Stanikmas – Senior Staff Writer
This has been a rough year for animated films. While there have been some very good ones (Zootopia and Finding Dory) there have been more misses (Norm Of The North, Angry Birds, Ratchet and Clank) than hits. Illumination Studios’ latest offering, the talking animal film The Secret Life Of Pets, falls somewhere in between.
Director Chris Renaud, who helmed the first two Despicable Me films, and his co-director Yarrow Cheney (who is making the leap from shorts to feature length movies with this) give us a serviceable film that will delight the younger set but will have a tougher time entertaining the adults that actually paid for the tickets.
The story centers on Max (Voiced by Louis C.K.), a New York terrier that has the best life a dog can ask for – he has an excellent home and a wonderful owner (Ellie Kemper) that he loves and who loves him. It’s just the two of them – until one day she brings a huge mutt named Duke(Eric Stonestreet) who threatens Max’s status quo.
Both pooches get a bit overzealous in their attempts to prove who the alpha dog is and somehow the duo find themselves on the streets of NYC without their leashes or tags. That can mean only one thing – a date with Animal Control and a trip to the pound!
But rescue comes in the unlikeliest of places – a cute but crazy rabbit named Snowball (Kevin Hart). The leader of the Flushed Pets (a group of animals abandoned by their owners who live in the sewers), Snowball offers Max and Duke membership in their brotherhood until he finds out the two are actually domesticated. Now the cottontail wants revenge for their duplicitousness.
Also on the hunt for Max are his friends from his apartment complex, including puffy Pomeranian pup Gidget (Jenny Slate), classically cool cat Chloe (Lake Bell), dachshund Buddy and pug Mel (Hannibal Burress and Bobby Moynihan, respectively), and parakeet Sweet Pea (Tara Strong). The group employs help from a number of unlikely sources as they search for their friends and try to bring them home before all the owners get back for the evening.
You can really see Illumination Studios try and break away from being the House The Minions Built with this film (even though the little yellow guys get a cute short before the film and a minor appearance of sorts in a mid-credit scene) but they still have a long ways to go. The animation is top notch and has that style that you can tell worked on the Despicable Me franchise – everything is bright and colorful and a little softer around the edges (which looks great in 3D).
What needs work is the storytelling. So many great kids’ movies are also fun for the adults. That’s where Disney / Pixar and Dreamworks tend to shine. The jokes work for everyone in the theater – from the children who the movie is being marketed to all the way up to the adults who plunk down their hard earned cash to bring the family to see a film like this. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have it’s fair share of laughs – they just don’t come as quick as the better animated films that have come out this year.
And while the story does have it’s fair share of cliches (the cute but maniacal bunny bad guy and the basic enemies-turned-friends-for-the-greater-good style story), I found myself caught up in the characters and smiling more often than not. There are many more stories to tell in this world and I’m hoping that this isn’t a one-and-done like the studio had with other films like Hop and The Lorax.
I’ve been reading a lot of other critics saying that they expected more from this film and Illumination Studios dropped the ball by not showing the animals more anthropomorphized. That’s what Zootopia was and if The Secret Life Of Pets did that it wouldn’t be the same. I didn’t need to see these animals walking around on two legs and acting like humans. The charm was in seeing them be animals that needed to get stuff done and having trouble because… (gasp) they ARE animals!
If the so-called “blockbusters” have you in a doldrum, throw a leash on The Secret Life Of Pets and take it out for a walk. You might just enjoy yourself more than you think.