The Secret Life of Pets isn't a mold-breaker for animated movies, but it's a consistently funny and inspired madcap romp nonetheless.
The Secret Life of Pets explores the daily lives of pets from New York - in particular Max (Louis C.K.), a terrier who is living the dream life with his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). When Katie brings home a stray from the pound in the form of the burly, slovenly, Duke (Eric Stonestreet), Max finds that his perfect existence has been shattered - prompting him to not only reassert his position as top dog, but also take steps to get Duke kicked out for good. However, Duke doesn't go down without a fight and soon the pair find themselves collarless - and being hunted by Animal Control.
Max and Duke manage to escape the human authorities with the help of "The Flushed Pets": a group of pets that were abandoned by their owners and now dwell in the sewers of New York - led by an unhinged white rabbit, by the name of Snowball (Kevin Hart). While Max and Duke team up to escape from Snowball's "army" and get home, Max's next-door neighbor Gidget (Jenny Slate) - a Pomeranian who has romantic feelings for Max - rallies the pets of Max's apartment complex to join her on a mission to bring their friend home, safe and sound.
The latest original animated movie from Illumination Entertainment (the studio behind the Despicable Me and Minions franchises), The Secret Life of Pets is a charmingly irreverent romp in the vein of Illumination's best previous work - something that make sense knowing that the movie was developed by several members of the studio's "brain trust", including director Chris Renaud (co-helmer of Despicable Me 1 & 2 and The Lorax). Still, The Secret Life of Pets delivers a witty madcap adventure anchored by a lovable band of (furry) misfits, taken solely on its own terms.
Script-wise, The Secret Life of Pets, as was penned by writing duo Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (Horton Hears a Who!, Despicable Me 1 & 2) in collaboration with Brian Lynch (Puss in Boots, Minions), begs comparison to Toy Story - not only in the sense that both are animated films that explore a "secret world" within our world, but also because they deal with similar kid-friendly themes and lessons (the challenges of getting along with adopted siblings, for example). Secret Life of Pets has less of a thematically-layered narrative and emotional depth than any of the Toy Story movies released to date, but helps to make up the difference through its storyline's sheer forward momentum - not to mention, the giddy pace at which it throws jokes at the wall, most of which stick the landing. Nevertheless, there are scenes where Secret Life of Pets could be more emotionally resonant and dramatically impactful, had it slowed down for additional plot/character development.
Louis C.K. (Louie) and Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family) are well-cast as the voices of the domesticated Max and unrefined Duke, respectively, and their clashing personalities creates a fun dynamic between the characters - one that carries the central narrative thread in The Secret Life of Pets. A secondary plot thread that revolves around Gidget leading the charge to rescue Max is likewise enjoyable, thanks to the fine work by the voice actors behind Max's non-human neighbors - including, the determined pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate); jolly-but-hyperactive pug Mel (Bobby Moynihan); apathetic, but secretly caring, tabby cat Chloe (Lake Bell); easy-going dachshund Buddy (Hannibal Buress); tiny but spirited parakeet Sweet Pea (Tara Strong); and Tiberius (Albert Brooks), a lonely red-tailed hawk who struggles to contain his predatory urges. Like the Toy Story ensemble, the individual personalities of the supporting players in Secret Life of Pets shine through, even with limited screen time for each of them.
Another standout is superstar comedian Kevin Hart as Snowball - as Hart's fast-talking performance style offers the perfect juxtaposition with the white rabbit's cuddly appearance, further driving home his unstable, but at the same time funny and likable manner. Other players worth noting, despite their small roles in Secret Life of Pets, include Steve Coogan as a worse-for-wear street cat named Ozone, comedian Dana Carvey as the elderly basset hound Pops, Ellie Kemper (of The Office and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt fame) as Max's cheery owner Katie, and even co-director Chris Renaud as Norman, a diminutive guinea pig constantly searching for his home in Max's apartment complex. As with the central storylines in Secret Life of Pets, theses supporting plot threads are each given a simple, but satisfying payoff by the end and only add to the movie's overall sense of zany fun.
Renaud and his immense team of animators, as well as co-director Yarrow Cheney, also keep the jokes in Secret Life of Pets flying fast and furious throughout the film - serving up much in the way of solid visual gags (some of which are Easter Eggs from other Illumination Entertainment films, past and future) as well as a healthy blend of Looney Tunes-style satirical asides (which adults are most likely to appreciate), broad slapstick, and cartoon physics-driven action/comedy sequences that should resonate with filmgoers of all ages, kids in particular. While the film's animation in general isn't quite as visually sophisticated as the best work from other animation studios, Secret Life of Pets serves up its fair share of playfully-designed characters - humans and animal alike - as well as bright and colorful imagery (in particular during a sequence that pays homage to old-fashioned Busby Berkeley-style musical dance numbers). For that reason, 3D isn't mandatory to get the full viewing experience offered by Secret Life of Pets - but it doesn't detract from the film, either.
The Secret Life of Pets isn't a mold-breaker for animated movies, but it's a consistently funny and inspired madcap romp nonetheless. The narrative has several formulaic elements (again, see those Toy Story comparisons) and the overall film struggles to serve up equal helpings of heart and humor throughout - but at the same time, Secret Life of Pets does feature some touching moments, especially for those moviegoers who have their own furry friend in real-life. Our recommendation: those looking for a fun, clever, and light-weight piece of summer entertainment, take a break from your daily routine and spend a day living on the wild side with your pets, instead.
The Secret Life of Pets is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 87 minutes long and is Rated PG for action and some rude humor.
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