The Secret Life of Pets (2016) Review!!

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Synopsis – The quiet life of a terrier named Max is upended when his owner takes in Duke, a stray whom Max instantly dislikes.

My Take – I guess we all at some point have thought what are animals thinking? Here, the concept has been molded for pet owners to visualize what their domestic pets may be doing when they are not home. As an idea, this has been played around for years, but with limit exploration of possibilities. This latest entry from Illumination Entertainment, the French animation studio behind Despicable Me, its sequel, its underwhelming spin-off Minions and the 2012 adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, has been highly anticipated from the moment the 1st trailer dropped in. And in comparison to most films now days, this one luckily does succeed in delivering the humor beyond the scenes depicted in the trailer. We have already seen pets as spies, pets being obsessive compulsive mouse hunters, and pets finding their way home. There is still so much one can do with this age old trope, if one is clever enough. However, this animated film has plenty of humor and good spirits that packs too much into its run time with good intentions, despite borrowing heavily from a certain 1990s Disney Pixar film. The problem with the film stems from its complete inability to marry story, character and concept into a discernible package. As it stands, the film despite being a decent watch, feels rushed, bulky and is chalked full of nonsensical choices that cripples any verdant ideas that could have been.

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The story follows Max (Louis C.K.), a spoiled terrier living in a New York City apartment building with his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). His perfect world is rocked when Katie brings in Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a giant rambunctious dog. In order to mark his territory, Max sabotages the apartment to set up Duke, a plan which backfires and strokes up the animosity between the two. After a prank in the park takes a turn for the worst, both Max and Duke are lost in the seedy underbelly of New York City. Naturally, the pooches must cope with each other and find their way home, but not without obstacles; underneath the belly of NYC is an underground secret society of abandoned and unwanted animals, led by the not so cuddly rabbit, Snowball (Kevin Hart). Due to accidentally offing a valuable member of the society, Snowball and his henchmen swear vengeance on our furry duo. While all this madness is afoot, a neighborhood Pomeranian named Gidget (Jenny Slate), who has a major crush on Max, enlists the help of all their animal neighbors to save him. This film sure is every bit as entertaining as you’d hope, based on its theatrical trailers, or its movie posters, or just its title. Directors Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud exploit many of the well-known quirks of different kinds of pets, but give each character in the film its own personality. The opening of the film provides a satisfying, hilarious and comprehensive introduction to many of the main characters before the film slowly starts losing its way. The rest of the film is like many sketch comedy shows: There’s a lot of material and it is uneven. There are many good, smart laughs. But there are a few scenes, such as a very dark and disturbing interrogation/initiation scene, that miss the mark by a lot. The main issue of the film, and it’s a biggie, is that it’s Toy Story with pets. There’s no sugar coating it. The main species has a social circle that their owners aren’t aware of. The main character loves his owner so much, and is insanely jealous when they bring home someone new. When one is trying to get rid of the other, they end up far away from home, and have to find their way back. They even have elements of Toy Story 2 and 3; friends coming together to find the main character, and a seemingly cute antagonist causing chaos. The only real original element is that the animals have their own language; they don’t harbor the ability to speak to humans. Despite this, the film isn’t a dud. By now, you’ve already heard from many sources about the parallels with Toy Story, and, if you’re open minded, can enjoy the film for what it is; a slapstick comedy with talking animals. It doesn’t remove the issue, but it allows one to see the effort the creators put in to the rest of the film.

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For me, the second and third acts of the movie were made worthwhile by the character of Gidget, an adorable white ball of fluff with a heart of darkness. Again and again Gidget steps up and drops hell on anyone and anything that blocks her path to her Max. Gidget is the focus of one of the best visual sequences in the movie: When the entire Flushed Pets Gang tries to capture Gidget and the rest of her rescue party, Gidget lets loose her inner Rottweiler in a sequence that owes a great deal to Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Gidget finishes addressing this problem with an attitude of sincere appreciation for the co-operation of by-standers and victims alike that I found winning and upbeat, and almost made me choke with laughter. Other than this what little character development is present it given to Max and Duke, with the latter having a genuinely heartbreaking moment which is sadly glanced over, and thrown aside. There is so much life and likability here. The only issue with character, is that there’s too many to remember, and not enough time to get to know them. It’s a good thing when you want to see more of the characters, but it also gives glaring warning signs: an inevitable sequel. Or perhaps, that may be a good thing. For this film, despite its flaws, seems like it could be the precursor to a creative franchise. There is so much that can be done with these characters, and with this world, that a sequel would be welcomed. The animation is fantastic; the textures and anatomy of the animals, while stylized, is still very true to what it represents. The look and feel of New York is large in scale and immensely colorful. The characters look like they have weight to them, that despite their cartoony appearance, they could be real animals. The characters are likable and cute, with the actors making them sound like they are animals; in better terms, you believe they are animals, not animals being voiced by humans. I don’t know how they managed that, but they did. The voice acting is pretty good, some parts are more memorable than others. Again, my favorite was Gidget voiced by Jenny Slate. I’m familiar with her from House of Lies but I didn’t recognize her, she does a great job. I also really liked Albert Brooks as Tiberius. He’s a veteran with all his work on Finding Nemo and Finding Dory but he’s really doing something different and it was for the best. Kevin Hart is doing Kevin Hart but his energy and enthusiasm is contagious and it makes Snowball a better villain for it. I also really liked Dana Carvey as Pops. Louis C.K. and Eric Stonestreet are respectively decent in their parts, they aren’t terribly memorable but they both do their jobs. Honestly the film does have some decent comedy and characters, but it suffers from only taking a shallow approach to the depths that its premise combined with some of the setting and characters presented. The secondary characters were good, but sharing space with the main characters left the others little time to establish their own engaging and believable dynamic. It leaves spectators somewhat entertained but not overly invested in the film as a whole. On the whole, ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ is loaded with gut-busting laughter and memorable characters but is let down by a predictable script.

2.5

Directed – Yarrow Cheney,  Chris Renaud

Starring (voices of) – Louis C.K.,  Eric Stonestreet,  Kevin Hart

Rated – PG

Run Time – 87 minutes

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