Newcomer animation studio Illumination Entertainment… well, what can you say about a studio with only six films under their belt? The two Despicable Me films (the first one I liked; never saw the second), the spin-off MINIONS (enjoyable), their only live-action film HOP (never saw), and now this one.
At first, this looked promising and that teaser was pretty funny. Then the trailer showed up, and… well, it still looked promising, but some of the humor was showing signs of immaturity. But the cuteness factor was still selling me, so I knew I was going to see it. In the end, I guess I had some high expectations. Were these secret lives worth knowing about, or was ignorance bliss? This is my honest opinion of THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS.
Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) is a pet terrier who lives a pampered life with his owner Katie (voiced by Ellie Kemper) whom he loves when she adopted him as a puppy. Even though he hates it when she leaves for work everyday, he still finds time to hang out with other pets in the apartment he lives in: a condescending cat named Chloe (voiced by Lake Bell), a dachshund named Buddy (voiced by Hannibal Buress), and a pug named Mel (voiced by Bobby Moynihan). For all intents and purposes, Max’s life is great. Of course, that all changes when Katie brings home another dog; a briard (possibly) named Duke (voiced by Eric Stonestreet). Immediately, the two don’t get along as Duke bullies his way into Max’s comfortable lifestyle and knocking Max out of the way. But before long, he learns how to get Duke to do as he says by acting out while Katie isn’t home, blaming any damage to the apartment on Duke as Katie knows Max wouldn’t misbehave. But as Max and Duke are out being walked by a dog walker, Duke manages to break him and himself free of the walker and tries to get rid of Max to live in Katie’s comfortable home all by himself. But things go south as they come in contact with animal control, a cute, but homicidal bunny named Snowball (voiced by Kevin Hart), as they try to find their way home while settling their differences.
With something of a heavy heart, the movie is just okay.
I’m sure he’s a really funny comedian, but as far as this movie is concerned, C.K. isn’t. Because Max is such a bland character I feel like you could have gotten any other actor to portray him, which kind of defeats the purpose of hiring a comedian. This is another problem with the story: Max is not very interesting. He feels like a recycled character that the audience has seen a thousand times in other kids movies. He’s not particularly “bad” per se, but there were better characters in the story.
This brings us to Duke, who is probably the cardinal sin of the flick. The issue with him is that this movie wants me to buy is this: Duke is adopted and he comes into Max’s life starting off as a bully. But as soon as things go south and they have their little adventure in the big city, we’re forcibly supposed to care about how scared he is of the pound. So what? You were a jerk to Max the moment Katie left. Karma sucks, you jerk. Duke gives no reasons for the audience to care about him, so when Max suddenly feels empathy for him, it’s not earned from a story-telling standpoint. I feel like it would have worked better if Duke came into the home, but didn’t start off as a bully. Instead, he came in trying to make things work with Max, but because Max is so used to being the only dog he inadvertently becomes a bully himself keeping Duke in line and out of the way. But because Duke is a much bigger and much more intimidating dog than Max is, Duke uses that to his advantage to be more comfortable and forces a sort of harmony between the two of them. I know that the movie is trying to make it seem like there is no bad guy between the two of them, but no, Duke was kind of mean, so why should we care if he’s afraid of going to the pound? I mean, we do later on learn why he was a stray in the first place, but it feels inconsistent. It’s never explained why he started off as a jerk toward Max, or why he suddenly accepts him later on.
Wait a minute… a non-human character that has a human owner that the two share a special bond… then a new non-human character arrives causing problems, and the two non-human characters get separated from home and have to find their way back while learning about each other and becoming friends… oh my god! It’s TOY STORY!!! I just realized that while writing this review! I can’t believe it took me this long! Wow… well, I guess if you’re an animation studio that needs to rip off a superior one, might as well rip off from the best.
Other issues that I had were that the jokes weren’t always that funny, there was a lot of immature, almost gross-out humor, some animal designs were questionable, among other things. But I don’t want it to sound like that I hate this movie because I really don’t. There were a few things that saved it for me. Chief among the saving graces are the characters Gidget and Snowball.
Many of you may remember Jenny Slate as Bellwether the sheep from ZOOTOPIA, and like in ZOOTOPIA, she’s very funny. Gidget is designed so adorably and it is pretty charming to see her have such a crush on Max. But more than her cuteness she’s actually kind of awesome. She’s not afraid to interrogate a guy for information. She’s not afraid to get down and dirty. She’s not afraid to get violent. An argument could be made that she’s just crazy and taking her crush too far, but dear God, is it entertaining to watch.
Now let’s talk about Snowball. As most people probably already know I’m not the biggest fan of Hart. Not that he’s a bad guy or anything, or not even a bad actor, but he often just plays the same annoying characters over and over and it’s just riding up on me. This role works perfectly because Hart is basically always playing a cartoon character anyway. Snowball is hilarious he’s psychotic he’s not he’s off his rocker and it’s so funny. If the killer rabbit from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL needed a personality, this would be it and it’s glorious.
So aside from it being a painful rip-off of one of the greatest animated movies of all time, and having less enjoyable characters, I can’t deny that Gidget and Snowball made me laugh and I hope Illumination makes spin-offs of these characters. Kids will like it enough, but for you adults out there, it might take some soldiering through in certain areas. By no means awful, but lackluster protagonists and a generally unfunny movie just shows that this secret life wasn’t anything special.
My honest rating: 3/5
Keep an eye out for the next batch of films this weekend:
- THE INFILTRATOR (technically, it’s already started playing in some theatres, so… “upcoming review” on this one)
- GHOSTBUSTERS (2016)
- CAFÉ SOCIETY
- Woody Allen film staring Jesse Eisenberg, Steve Carrell, Kristen Stewart, and more.
- Sci-fi (indie?) film staring Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart.