With the release of what it feels like is already a done deal for biggest kid’s hit of the year in Finding Dory, a competition is well and truly under way for second place on the podium of summer’s most popular animated movie. One seemingly strong contender for said runner-up position comes from the team that brought us the Despicable Me franchise and subsequent Minions franchise, a fun looking adventure called The Secret Life Of Pets.
Set in among the apartment blocks and underground sewers of New York City, The Secret Life Of Pets tells the story of Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) an adopted Jack Russell whose life is turned upside down when his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) brings home a new addition to the family, big mongrel Duke (Eric Stonestreet). On a particularly frantic day at the dog park, Max and Duke find themselves escaped from their dog walker and proceed to go on a dangerous adventure across boroughs to try and get home, falling in with a rogue crew of ownerless pets lead by gangster bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart), whilst all the while being followed by their fellow apartment block friends who have launched a grand rescue attempt. Whilst the film is a perfectly enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, what is slightly annoying is that the very best, most effective elements of the picture are the smaller, background details rather than the main adventure plot. Pet owners will take great delight in the opening scenes showing us what our animals might get up to when home alone, from raiding the fridge to listening to music to gleefully shouting at squirrels from the window, and a lot of these observations had me laughing out loud as I imagined my cats doing the very same. A slight lull in quality occurs, however, in the meat of the plot when the protagonists pretty much ignore their animalistic quirks and what follows is a pretty mundane ‘fight to get home’ type narrative that, though containing a fair share of enjoyable set pieces, never lives up to the ingenuity of the smaller details that the opening fifteen minutes possessed. Like so many animated children’s films, The Secret Life Of Pets has too many characters, and in the way that they are all so uniquely cute and uniquely designed, it feels very much like the filmmakers have gone down the road of caring more about future merchandising than clarity and solidity of overall narrative. Don’t get me wrong, there is certainly enough within the film to make it an above average animated feature that can be enjoyed by a wide age range, but in the post-Inside Out age, the landscape of children’s movies has changed, and if you want your picture to be considered in the same breath, you need to show us more than some fun slap stick and adorable character designs. That said, it is worth the price of admission alone to witness probably the most insane and wonderful depiction of falling in to a food coma that you are ever likely to see!
As I said, the film is over-stuffed with characters, the majority of whom have a famous name to put to a cute animal face. Louis C.K. as Max gives the audience an endearing and likeable personality, extremely tenacious and authentic, well, as authentic as an animated dog can be! As the comically oversized Duke, Eric Stronestreet provides a friendly, uncomplicated voice, and it is Stonestreet perhaps more than anybody who achieves a depth of character as Duke is faced with some of the more sombre passages in the narrative. The two voice actors together create a believable enough chemistry, certainly one that doesn’t take you out of the proceedings, and with the visuals being the key component here, the job they do is more than satisfactory. Supporting voice performances from the likes Jenny Slate, Hannibal Buress and Lake Bell all bring fun life to their animal characters, with the only dent in my enjoyment coming in the form of Kevin Hart as Snowball the bunny. Through no fault of his own, Hart’s voice has become so synonymous with his stand up comedy human persona that at times it is very difficult to separate the high pitched quipping from the actor locked in the sound booth.
Overall, The Secret Life Of Pets is an above average animated feature that, though not scaling the dizzy heights of Disney or Pixar’s best, even Dreamworks’ best, will still find its place as a stalwart on the DVD shelf of any respectable family household in time. Particular pleasure is to be taken by pet owners who will enjoy the small, subtle displays of crazy cat/dog/bird/hamster behaviour that we all love about our own fury friends. Not the best animation I have seen this year but far, very far, from the worst.