Directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney
Starring Louis C.K., Ellie Kemper, Eric Stonestreet, Lake Bell, Steve Coogan, Jenny Slate & Dana Carvey
Film Review by Jack Bottomley
After finding immense success with their Despicable Me franchise and last year’s spin-off Minions (starring the goggle-eyed, dungaree-wearing sponge-like henchman), The Secret Life of Pets is Illumination Entertainment’s next attempt at capturing the hearts of their family audiences. Although it is preceded by fun Minions short Mower Minions, this animated film is clearly an effort to get something else going for this successful animation studio. Blessed with a core concept that some have called Toy Story with animals, the potential for Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney’s feature is evident. Who doesn’t love cute animals going on an adventure? So as we enter the heart of New York and find out what our beloved pets get up to during the day, we also ask can this film reach the heights of its inspirations or is it a bit of a dog?
Set in New York City, the film sees Jack the Jack Russell Terrier (voiced by Louis C.K.) lead the perfect life, alongside his loving owner Katie (Ellie Kemper), but things are thrown into disorder when she brings home huge hairy mongrel Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Needless to say the two struggle to get along but when a park incident strands them both on the streets, Duke and Jack will have to work together to survive animal catchers, streetwise strays out for revenge against humans, and more, as they try to get back home. All the while their neighbourhood friends are trying to find them. Reminiscent in many ways of Oliver & Company with lashings of Toy Story, Bolt and Up, Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio’s screenplay cannot quite match the sophisticated storytelling or emotional heft of some of those influences, however The Secret Life of Pets is still a fun family film with its heart in the right place.
Starting brilliantly well and ending in an equally warm and affectionate fashion, these bookend moments of greatness are the film’s strongest suit. Featuring visual comedy and heart-warming testaments to how our animals act and think and how we as owners treat them. These insightfully funny sequences are what really sell the film and will speak directly to many an audience. Sadly it is the central narrative stretch that loses this impact, forgoing some of the insight to tell a story of getting home and feeling the need to over complicate matters. The script in this main body is not all bad but loses some of the finesse set up in the opening stretches of the film, even as it moves at a right old lick!
Still, this being said the punchy voicework and wide selection of characters do make the whole thing a pleasurable enough viewing for the family. Jack and Duke eventually make a worthwhile heroic duo- see a sausage dream sequence- even if scenes are stolen like biscuits from the cupboard by overweight pampered feline character Chloe (Lake Bell). True the lack of a proper villain in place of Kevin Hart’s rather annoying rabbit Snowball is an undeniable setback but with characters like the sneaky Ozone the Sphynx cat (Steve Coogan), Tiberius the Hawk (Albert Brooks), love struck Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) and Pops (Dana Carvey) the paralysed Bassett Hound, there are plenty of characters here to entertain a wide range of viewers, even if some (Ozone especially) deserve more screen time.
So, while not utilising the concept as greatly as it could have done, though it does acknowledge our obsession with viral cat videos momentarily, this animated effort still makes for a worthwhile animated adventure. The animation is bright and pleasant, awash in this sunny kind of hue that makes it oh so charming. While Alexandre Desplat’s wonderful score is a real highlight, evoking a very ‘60s New York cinema vibe, with a wide range of emotions and styles in one soundtrack. It is not always hilarious and goes off course at points but for family aimed entertainment, The Secret Life of Pets is enjoyable if not quite Toy Story with pets. Still it makes you want to give your little animal friends a hug, so job done really.