The Secret Life of Pets has a simple but rather interesting premise, “What do your pets do when you’re not around?”. The film, made by Illumination Entertainment (Despicable Me, Minions), features an all-star cast led by Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, and Kevin Hart. Despite the potential to be great, The Secret Life of Pets is exactly as it’s billed, a wild adventure through New York City featuring talking animals that’s entertaining but has little else to offer.
The film's plot is unoriginal at best and a rip-off at worst. The popular and beloved main character feels he is being replaced atop the food chain by a new favorite. Naturally, he does whatever it takes to ensure that the interloper is removed. Much of the humor derives from anthropomorphizing things that cannot talk with humans. Through a series of mishaps, adventures, and dangerous close calls, the two grow to admire and respect each other. I just described Pixar’s Toy Story. Oh, and also The Secret Life of Pets.
That’s not fair, I’m doing the film a disservice. Many different films have had that similar basic plot structure. The Secret Life of Pets does have an original premise. The film does a good job of imagining what pets would do when their owners were away. It just feels slightly stale in light of Disney’s excellent Zootopia featuring talking animals traversing a city just months ago.
The actual plot revolves around Max (Louis C.K.), a popular, owner loving, fun dog and his friends in several adjacent Manhattan apartments. His life is turned upside down when his beloved owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper), brings home another dog, Duke (Eric Stonestreet), to be his “brother”. Things quickly go downhill from there as they both attempt to get rid of each other. They end up lost in the city and desperate to find their way home, while Gidget (Jenny Slate), one of Max’s dog friends who harbors romantic feelings for him organizes a search party to find them.
As previously mentioned, much of the humor is derived from their interaction with one another as they are anthropomorphized but still retain their pet characteristics. The pets are all unique, well animated, quirky, and are often put into ironic or zany situations that play off their animal nature. It's a bright film with a bubbly personality and a lightness in tone (despite some dark aspects). It doesn't hurt that the film boasts a stellar comedic cast (Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Hannibal Buress etc). All of this works quite well, and the film is fast paced and fluid which keeps the audience’s interest and attention.
The Secret life of Pets has an odd second act that just feels dark and out of place. Max and Duke meet Snowball (Kevin Hart) and his large army of forgotten, downtrodden, and abused animals (Hart’s shtick is also quite annoying here and his yelling gets old very quickly). They reject the domesticated life and advocate “owner killing” in a children’s film. Yes, it’s quite odd. Furthermore, the film struggles to give weight to the fact that humans can be both kind and extremely cruel to animals and the latter is played for laughs. Thankfully the film moves fairly quickly so it never dwells on any of this stuff for too long. There are other dark implications near the end of the film that feel glossed over. It's ending attempts to reconcile the darker themes by being extremely sweet, but while emotionally rewarding, it doesn’t feel earned.
The Secret Life of Pets is another smashing success for Illumination Entertainment, having already hauled in $100 million on its opening weekend alone. Despite the film’s original premise, it’s tainted by a predictable plot that feels like Toy Story but with pets. Still, Toy Story but with pets is enough of a reason for this film to exist. The Secret Life of Pets is an entertaining, energetic, and bright film, but it just lacks the kind of depth that we’d expect from a modern day animated film from Disney and Pixar.
TLDR: The Secret Life of Pets is a fun, vivid, romp that lacks substance and is stunted by its unoriginal story. 3/5 Stars.