REVIEW: ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ (2016)

The Secret Life of Pets
The Secret Life of Pets

I really do try to view every movie with something of a blank slate.  When the screen is dark, silent at the front of the theatre before the projector has hit it, it’s a monolith of potential energy—anything can happen.  To this end, I scrupulously try to avoid trailers, synopses, and reviews for many movies before I see them.  This is also a way to mitigate the ‘all the best bits were in the trailer!’ complaint.

I couldn’t swing this for The Secret Life of Pets, the new movie from Illumination Entertainment, distributed by Universal.  I began seeing trailers for it probably a year ago.  I have a general suspicion of 3-D animated films without a Pixar pedigree, but, as an animal lover, the idea of the film intrigued me.  My dog loves me unconditionally!  My cat seems eternally disinterested in everything around her!  It seems quite relatable to a degree!

Well I can safely say that ‘all the best bits are not in the trailer!’ but that doesn’t mean that the previews aren’t misleading.  For the movie, despite the premise promised in the trailer and the title, is not about the secret life of pets.  They could more accurately title it, The Day When Two Pets Go Missing.  The trailer only describes the happenings of about the first ten minutes of the movie.  Then, a standard plot develops and the movie becomes something far more generic and uninteresting.

Louis CK plays Max, an adorable Jack Russell in love with his master, Katie.  Max spends most of his days in front of the door to Katie’s apartment, eagerly awaiting any sounds that might suggest she’s coming home from wherever it is that she goes all day.  One evening, Katie brings home a brother for Max: a larger, shaggy dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet).  Max and Duke, both being territorial canines, don’t get along.  They fight over food bowls, padded beds, and Katie’s affections.  During an excursion with their dogwalker, Duke dupes Max into straying into the bustling, scary Big Apple, and the pair get lost. Will they find their way back to Katie?  I won’t spoil the movie for you, but if you’ve seen literally any other kids’ flick where the main character gets lost, you may have a sneaking suspicion.

The Secret Life of Pets

Now, one of the charms of Pixar is their ability to match a voice artist with a character.  Often, the Pixar team uses the public personas of actors or comics to tap into or illuminate something about the characters they portray.  This is true of Dory, Woody, Buzz, Disgust, Mr or Mrs Incredible, Tow Mater, Remy, Sigourney Weaver, and pretty much any main or supporting Pixar character you can think of.

Such is not the case with The Secret Life of Pets.  Louis CK is a talented voice artist, and gives Max an innocent guilelessness that works, but there really is nothing about Max that makes CK essential to the role. This is true of almost every voice actor here—even, sadly, Albert Brooks, who usually elevates whatever project he chooses to be in.  The only actor who really gets a chance make a mark is Kevin Hart, hilarious as Snowball the bunny.  Hart’s mania injects some welcome comedic jolts into the proceedings.  Honestly, though, half the hilarity is just the incongruity of such a psychotically demented voice emanating from an otherwise adorably fluffy little white bunny.

Along the way, there are some brief moments of originality.  The opening sequence, where we actually see the secret life of pets, and what they do without their owners all day, is the highlight.  It is completely un-coincidental that this was the focus of all the marketing.  There’s also a spooky sewer grate made of snakes, a frightening initiation ritual involving Snowball’s cult of abandoned pets, and a psychedelic, gastronomic tour through a wiener factory—though, your tolerance for the last one may depend largely upon your personal dietary choices.  (Did you know that slaughterhouse workers routinely castrate baby pigs without anaesthetic?  Enjoy your hot dogs!)

Ultimately, though, The Secret Life of Pets plays like a clever short film with an extra, narratively-unrelated 70 minutes or so tacked on to bring it to feature length.  It’s certainly more pleasurable than a trip to the vet.  But if you have tiny, furry creatures at home, do them a favour: save your money and spend an hour and a half playing with them.  They’ll love you forever.

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