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Review: The Secret Life of Pets

July 8, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The Secret Life of Pets PosterAn animal-focused adventure from Illumination Entertainment, the same studio behind the Despicable Me franchise, The Secret Life of Pets is an enjoyable caper that injects cute characters into a familiar formula to offer a fast-paced and easily likeable diversion.

The prologue introduces us to Max (Louis C.K.), an adorable little terrier who shares a special bond with his human guardian Katie (Ellie Kemper), who live together in their trendy and pet-friendly downtown New York apartment.

The only problem is that she leaves every day, and one night she comes home with Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a shaggy rescue dog that also vies for her attention, turning them into rivals.  From here, the plot takes off like a shot.  Max and Duke end up getting loose and on the run from animal control, forcing them to work together in order to get home and avoid the fate that awaits them at the pound.

This leads the two misplaced dogs to Snowball (Kevin Hart), a fluffy but ruthless little bunny who leads a group of anarchist animals who live in the sewers and protest domestication, fantasizing about killing humans and leading a revolution to overthrow pet owners. Yes, things do get a bit twisted.  Meanwhile, the other pets in the building, including the fluffy little pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate), the obese and sardonic cat in a dog’s world Chloe (Lake Bell), and the aging hound dog Pops (Dana Carvey), set out on their own journey to try and rescue their friends.

The film moves at a breakneck pace, never really stopping long enough to connect on a deeper level beyond the manic energy.  There are flashes of emotional connection involving Duke’s backstory, but they are mainly kept beneath the surface.  The largely scattershot script also hues a little too closely to Toy Story in terms of narrative, with pets standing in for toys who come out to play when the people are away, and certain plot points pretty much copy and pasted from the Pixar classic.  Max and Duke are essentially variations on Woody and Buzz, and their entire character arc of learning to accept each other and become friends as they both vie for their owner’s attention is pretty much ripped from Toy Story, complete with having to jump on the back of a van.

But The Secret Life of Pets is still entertaining enough to work on its own terms, and moves at such a quick pace that we don’t even really have time to dwell upon these predictable narrative beats until after the fact.  Like with the first two Despicable Me films, and last year’s surprisingly enjoyable and better than expected spinoff Minions, Illumination Entertainment brings a cartoony feel to their films, and it’s a formula that they actually do well.  Likewise, The Secret Life of Pets is mainly built around set pieces, which are all brightly animated and colourful enough to keep us visually engaged, ranging from absurdly funny to action-packed.  A literal sausage party provides one of the most surreal moments.

There are amusing sight gags peppered throughout, and also plenty of cute YouTube-inspired moments that pet lovers are sure to appreciate, including a montage early on that shows what the other pets in the building do when their owners leave for the day.  The main characters are mostly appealing, and the all-star voice cast does a lively job of bringing them to life.  Louie C.K., Lake Bell and Jenny Slate all do particularly memorable and strong work, and Albert Brooks is also perfectly cast as a tough hawk who lives on the roof and has trouble curbing his predatory ways.

The film isn’t really substantial enough to leave its mark on a year that has already given us Zootopia and Finding Dory in terms of animation, a pair of knockouts that resonated with deeper themes woven in.  But The Secret Life of Pets moves fast and offers plenty of amusing moments to provide an enjoyable and charming diversion that raises more than a few smiles, with appealing animation and characters that are likeable enough to keep us watching.  And kids are gonna love it.

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