a critiQal film review The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

Plot: Max (Louis C.K.) is a spoiled terrier who enjoys a comfortable life in a New York building until his owner adopts Duke (Stonestreet), a giant and unruly canine. During their walk outside, they encounter a group of ferocious alley cats and wind up in a truck that's bound for the pound. Luckily, a rebellious bunny named Snowball (Hart) swoops in to save the doggy duo from captivity. In exchange, Snowball demands that Max and Duke join his gang of abandoned pets on a mission against the humans who've done them wrong.

639 words (Est. Reading Time 3m 11s)

New on NetFlix® was a movie that looked pretty good in the previews, but didn’t seem to fare so well in the reviews: The Secret Life of Pets. At first glance, this movie seems to have everything going for it. It’s a new animated film from fan fave Illumination Entertainment (Despicable Me (2010), Sing (2016)). It’s got a voice cast that includes everyone from Louis C.K. to Dana Carvey. The trailers made it look really funny. Why then were the reviews not so good? Were the reviewers wrong, or did Illumination Entertainment fail to live up to the promise of this film?

The voice cast in The Secret Life of Pets all do a good job without really standing out from the crowd. Rather than being totally recognizable, the voices sound familiar, without the viewer really being able to place them. Louis C.K.? Dana Carvey? Kevin Hart? They’re all in there, but you have to read the credits to figure out who’s playing who. It’s actually pretty good for the film, as the viewers don’t have any trouble relating the voice to the animated character on-screen.

The animation, again, is top-notch. Whatever problems Illumination Entertainment films may have, animation is not one of them. From an early sequence that shows an animated New York City in detail to the interactions between the characters throughout the film, there isn’t one sequence in The Secret Life of Pets viewers could point to as having flawed animation. It’s a bit cartoonish, maybe (as usual), but that’s their style, and it works.

Unfortunately, Illumination’s biggest problem has always been with their quirky storylines. The storylines are a bit too off-the-wall for kid’s films, and that doesn’t change in The Secret Life of Pets. The original premise (what do your pets do while you’re away?) is intriguing, but when the answer involves a gang of sewer animals led by a psychotic bunny, viewers might wonder at how Illumination comes up with these weird ideas – and if they aren’t once again trying to stretch a decent idea for a short into a feature-length film.

Well, Illumination has had a lot of practice with that by this point (look at how they stretched the Despicable Me (2010) idea into 4 films so far!). The more films they get under their belt, the better they get at distracting viewers from the thin framework of their films. Thanks to references to The Matrix (1999), Super Mario Bros. and more that abound throughout the film (not to mention several shameless plugs at their own films, especially Minions (2015)), they keep the film from feeling stale. With several comedic animal moments tossed in (watching the dachsund climb a building is hilarious, among others), The Secret Life of Pets covers its thin plot rather well.

Unfortunately, that thinness still shines through, especially in the beginning when the viewer has to take in the weirdness of the sewer animal gang. But, once the film starts focusing more on the story between the two main dogs, it gets a bit better, and viewers should enjoy most of the rest of the film. Even when the dogs start falling into a weird fantasy world where everything is made of sausages, they should be hooked enough on The Secret Life of Pets to see it through to its’ feel-good ending.

While The Secret Life of Pets doesn’t ever live up to its original premise, it’s not the worst animated film around. And, with the injection of some funny animal actions and quirky references (I especially liked “Happy” from Minions (2015) playing in a passing cab), the film is up there with the best of Illumination’s films I’ve seen so far. Sadly, that isn’t saying much, but hopefully Sing (2016), which got better reviews, (or the upcoming Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch (2018)) will turn out to break the 3-star barrier.

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