It’s nice to have all your preconceptions smashed once in a while. Like during the 2000’s you knew, from Western studios anyway, that Pixar and Dreamworks would make modern classics while Disney and Blue Sky Studios would churn out some keep the kids quiet movies. However enter the 2010s and things changed. Pixar and Dreamworks had declines while Disney came back with aplomb to make classics. Heck, Warner Bros are back in the picture now. Blue Sky didn’t change. However the biggest shock was the rise of Illumination with their Despicable Me franchise which has always been fun, despite the recent minion hate. Can they continue their rise to the top with The Secret Life Of Pets?
Max (Louis C.K, Louie) has a good life with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper, 21 Jump Street) but that all changes when she adopts a new dog, Duke (Eric Stonestreet, Modern Family), a dog Max instantly dislikes. However their fighting leads them to end up on the streets of New York and collarless and they are forced to get involved with the Flushed Pets, a group of abandoned animals which hate humans, in order to get back home.
If that plot of an established character hating a newcomer because he feels jealous of the connection a loved one has with him, with that leading to the pair becoming lost and having to find their way home together seems familiar, it should. It’s the plot of Toy Story, one of the best animated films of all time. It’s based on the same concept too of something we adore having a secret life when he leave them on their own, just as a child might imagine. You even have a bunch of characters chasing after them to bring them home to make it even more like Toy Story, if that’s even possible. Quite honestly the story of this film is so similar to Toy Story, I’m surprised that Pixar haven’t sued yet. It’s not just similar, it’s directly ripping off.
This feeling of familiarity continues throughout. Many of the jokes, set ups and punchlines, are taken directly from other films and it feels like no one in the writing room had an original thought. All the dogs have obsessions with squirrels. Yes, Up did it. Some of the lines that Max is given also feel like they were rejects for Doug, simply because the structure of them are the same. Cats are silly and make for funny viral videos. I’ve just dealt with that crap in Nine Lives, please don’t remind me. And we’ve done the fluffy and cute villain in Zootopia, we can do something different can’t we?
Actually, while the cute and cuddly villain thing has been done before, the collective Flushed Pets who hate humanity and live in the sewers is probably the most original thing the film does. Oh yeah, there’s a whiff of Futurama and Flushed Away, but it isn’t overpowering like in the rest of the film. The Flushed Pets are led by a fluffy bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart, Ride Along) who is amusing enough. He doesn’t get many great lines but even the bad ones can get a chuckle but Hart is such an exuberant performer, even with just his voice, and he can sell those bad lines so well.
The big disappointment about this story line is that it lacks the emotional punch it could have had. This film could have done so much more with the conceit that some owners are bad, and that maybe not all animals are loved. It could have also taught the kids watching a valuable lesson about being a good pet owner, which many films don’t. Even more excruciating is that later on in the film, there’s an emotional revelation which means you can draw parallels between a main character and the flushed pets, yet the film doesn’t even think about making this link. These missed opportunities are more frustrating than the obvious flaws because it shows what could have been.
However there is plenty of humour to be found in the film. Every voice actor does a great job and imbues their character with plenty of personality, meaning that the odd good line is sold well and gets a laugh. And when the plot quiets down and we get to see the pets doing what they like to do when their owners are out, the film is at its best. While it has been much trailed, it is funny to see the sausage dog Buddy (Hannibal Buress, Bad Neighbours) use an electric whisk to massage his back and the literal fat cat Chloe (Lake Bell, In A World…) mull over eating a massive chicken, before doing that and then taking the cake rather literally as well. You get the feeling the film started with these little segments and they built the film around that rather than the plot, which found in the dustbin.
I wanted to like The Secret Life Of Pets, I really did. I feel Illumination get a bad rap because of the Despicable Me franchise and how the Minions have managed to dominate pop culture, even though none of their films are actually that bad. But they really didn’t try with this one. Nothing in this film is original, it’s just borrowed or straight up ripped off from better movies. Yes I know getting a film to keep the kids quiet is important, but you might as well just put Toy Story on again.