THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS. Voices of Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Steve Coogan. Directed by Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney. 87 minutes. Rated G (Very mild sense of threat and some crude humour).
Illumination Entertainment, the relatively new American animation house behind the unstoppable ‘Despicable Me’ franchise, has found themselves a problematic winning formula. With their pictures turned out with comparatively small budgets, they’re almost certain to turn a profit when hordes of youngsters turn out in force to consume their wares. However this might be a Catch-22, as their guaranteed investment doesn’t require them to ensure that their films are high quality – there’s simply no need. That’s not to say that ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ is awful, but like their last effort – the ‘Minions’ spinoff released last year – its flashy colours and silly narrative will divert children, while parents accustomed to a diet of excellent Disney and Pixar films should be less than impressed.
Taylor Swift’s pop hit ‘Welcome to New York’ accompanies our introduction to the film’s stylised version of the Big Apple, the camera swooping down over Central Park before settling into a montage of pet owners leaving their critters behind as they leave to work for the day. Our pooch protagonist is terrier Max (Louie C.K.), who is deeply enamoured with the comfortable life he enjoys with owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). When the humans leave, the pets gleefully engage in surprising activities – a snobby poodle rocks out to heavy metal music, a budgerigar uses a fan and a TV to simulate flying manoeuvres with fighter jets, a dachshund enjoys a massage courtesy of a kitchen stand mixer. Some of the gags are enjoyable, but the ‘unexpected things having rich internal lives’ gimmick has lost some of its inherent humour in the decades since ‘Toy Story’ and Pixar colonised the territory.
Max’s perfect world is upended however, when Katie brings enormous, shaggy hound Duke (Eric Stonestreet) home from the pound. Their pair strike up an immediate animosity, which boils over on their daily walk when Duke tries to dispose of Max in a bin, before both are relieved of their collars by a gang of stray cats led by Ozone (Steve Coogan). When Animal Control appear on the scene, Max and Duke are bundled off, before being busted out moments later by insane rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart) and his animal justice crew, the Flushed Pets, whose aim is the destruction of the human race. Again, the similarities to the Buzz-Woody dynamic at the heart of ‘Toy Story’ are prominent in the Duke-Max pairing, and while the inevitable lessons about acceptance and friendship are valuable, they’ve been packaged far more coherently and engagingly before.
After the Flushed Pets realise that their new recruits aren’t the violent anti-human renegades they claimed to be, Max and Duke flee. They wind up in Brooklyn, with their gaol breakers in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, back at Max’s building, Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) realises that Max and Duke are missing. She teams up with dachshund Buddy (Hannibal Burress), pug Mel (Bobby Moynihan), pampered cat Chloe (Lake Bell), guinea pig Noah (Chris Renaud), budgie Sweetpea (Tara Strong), and hawk Tiberius (Albert Brooks) to find their friend. As the three groups converge on Brooklyn (with Animal Control also now in the mix), it’s basically a battle to see who can their hands (or paws) on Max and Duke first.
The voice cast is solid, with strong timing from their almost across the board backgrounds in comedy, and Alexandre Desplat’s score has its moments of jazzy fun (though much of it from the modern master is oddly forgettable). But despite the bright animation (following the same caricature-heavy style as the ‘Despicable Me’ films), the narrative is never absorbing for a discerning audience. Kids will likely enjoy the humour and talking animals, but parents will be frustrated by the lack of an original story to string the set pieces together.
Given our proximity to school holidays, reviewing ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ seems somewhat irrelevant. Kids will be nagging to see the film, and parents will likely acquiesce. However it probably isn’t one for the whole family – just send Dad or Mum with the kids and give the other a well-deserved break.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out September 8.