'The Secret Life of Pets' Review

Photo Credit: Illumination Entertainment

With so many talking animal movies over the years and decades, The Secret Life of Pets is most likely out by now. But Illumination Entertainment seeks to continue its rise with its version of talking pets, and by proving it can do an animated film without any minions, not counting the ones in the opening short. Yet while it can’t help but get some laughs out of the pets’ no longer secret adventures, there aren’t always enough of them.

New York City dog Max has the perfect life, at least whenever his beloved owner Katie is home. However, when Katie comes home with a much bigger and much less cuddly dog named Duke, Max’s perfect life goes south really fast. The newfound sibling rivalry quickly escalates until both Max and Duke lose their collars, get taken by animal control, and then get rescued by a gang of 'flushed pets' led by psychotic revolutionary bunny rabbit Snowball. But while Max and Duke try to survive Snowball's clutches and the city in general, lovesick neighbor dog Gidget leads all of Max's friends in a frantic search to bring him home.

The Secret Life of Pets doesn't take long to earn its 3D ticket prices, as it has more than its share of stunning wide angle shots of an animated New York. With a fair share of animals coming right out of the screen as well, including snakes, alligators and vipers, this is the rare movie these days that justifies the larger 3D price.

Storytelling wise, Illumination owes more than a few royalty checks to Pixar, even more so than the average animated film that tries to ape them. The whole premise of pets coming to life when humans aren't watching isn't completely ripped off from Toy Story, but centering it on the plot line of a dog getting jealous of a bigger and flashier newcomer doesn't help sell its originality. Although Duke isn't deluded about who he is and Max doesn't wear a cowboy hat, their setup all but makes them the Woody and Buzz in the pet world.

Other animated movies come to mind as well, albeit not always on purpose. A fantasy sequence of Max and Duke with singing sausages brings to mind the upcoming and much less kid-friendly animated film Sausage Party, where hot dogs and food products are much less happy to get eaten. And almost unsurprisingly, Illumination finds a way to work in a poster for its upcoming Sing in its climax, to go along with its new trailer 75 minutes earlier.

While Toy Story owns the obvious blueprints for the central conflict, a late attempt to show Duke's life with a past owner seems like a half-hearted attempt to evoke Toy Story 2, only without a tear jerking song. Even Snowball accidentally brings to mind Toy Story 3’s Lotso in some small way, as an abandoned pet/toy turned would be tyrant who rants against fickle owners. But there are more current Pixar memories evoked, as this is the second straight major animated film to have animals hijacking a large vehicle and driving it off a bridge in the big finale, a la Finding Dory.

Like Dory, Pets also happens to borrow from the Modern Family cast, although it settles for just one of them in Eric Stonestreet while Ed O'Neill and Ty Burrell were busy with Pixar. Stonestreet does gets a far different and messier character than on TV to chew on in Duke, while Louie C.K. gets more family friendly one-liners and quips than on FX as Max. Unfortunately, fellow TV favorite Ellie Kemper only has a handful of lines as their actual owner.

The Illumination team rushes to get Max and Duke lost from home faster than Pixar did with Woody and Buzz, in order to get them abducted by Snowball's gang. This tiny little megalomaniac and just plain manic rabbit has Kevin Hart written all over it, with Hart getting laughs through sheer force of fast talking will as per usual. To those older adults who have had their fill of hearing Hart in theaters in the last few years, however, their mileage may vary.

The biggest laughs from a tiny little animal with a short tempered personality actually come from Max's self-proclaimed girlfriend Gidget, thanks to Jenny Slate in her second talking animal animated movie of 2016 after Zootopia. Her search also helpfully ropes in Finding Dory’s own Albert Brooks as a caged hawk, Lake Bell as a very fat cat, Hannibal Burress and Bobby Moynihan as fellow dogs, and even Dana Carvey as a much older half-paralyzed/blind dog.

In combining these various threads, The Secret Life of Pets has a now typically manic energy from Illumination, albeit one hardly as hyper as the Minions/Despicable Me films. Between that and the somewhat more jazzy score than usual, that seems to quality as Illumination’s attempt to break away from its current formula. In any case, it seems like they’ll have plenty of room to go more overboard with all the cover songs and celebrity singing performances in Sing.

Still, the Minions and their various masters were able to make more of a memorable impression, for better or worse. As for the Pets, while they work in fits and starts just like the other Illumination films, the highs stood out a bit more in the other movies. While the early snippets of what pets do right after their owners leave for work helped sell the film in its first trailer, it turns out that helped give away some of the best bits a year early.

The Secret Life of Pets may not be the biggest leap forward for Illumination, but it isn’t a big step back either. There is certainly a fair share of amusement to be had, mixed in with its first rate animation and 3D effects, plus the scene stealing vocals of Slate, Stonestreet, Brooks and Hart among others.

But while that all guarantees at least some laughs every few minutes, it isn’t quite consistent the whole way through, as Illumination still needs to do more to be Pixar’s top competition than borrow from its past plots.