From the studio that brought you Despicable Me and Minions, comes The Secret Life of Pets, an animated tale (tail?) that provides a peek into the lives of our pets when we leave them at home. While we all have our suspicions about what sweet little Kaylee, Sadie, or Cami do when we leave for the day, the minds behind the minions surmise that there’s an unknown underbelly just waiting to be scratched in an adventure puuuurfect for entertaining children for the entire 90-minute run-time.
The Secret Life of Pets offers exactly what you expect from a summer kids’ movie – jokes, a hearty moral, and a happy ending. The story centers on Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) who is unhappy to find his life upended when his owner brings home a new pet, Duke (voiced by Eric Stonestreet). While working out their differences, they find themselves being chased by not only New York Animal Control, but also The Gang of Flushed Pets, led by the human-hating, slightly insane rabbit Snowball (voiced by Kevin Hart). The cast is rounded out by a supporting cast of canines, felines, and avians voiced by such comedic talent as Jenny Slate, Lake Bell, Hannibal Buress, Dana Carvey, Steve Coogan, Bobby Moynihan, and Albert Brooks.
It’s the rare children’s movie that offers unexpected surprises, that tugs at the heartstrings, and that entertains and delights children of all ages. The Secret Life of Pets, unfortunately, is not one of those films. That is not to say it isn’t entertaining and fun. Secret Life is a perfect kids’ popcorn movie; it’s light, silly, sweet, and contains no potential danger or disaster. Instead, Secret Life focuses on the importance of friendship, acceptance, and finding a home – all worthy lessons for children, but executed far better by Pixar and Disney. Though it features an enormous cast of characters, the focus of the film is set between two conflicts: Max and Duke and Max and Duke vs. the Gang of Flushed Pets. Unfortunately, there is really only enough story here for a short film, which is why I suspect so much time is spent with Max’s neighboring animals who go on their own adventure to save Max. Problem is, all they really do is retread the same ground as Max and Duke without adding much. They do provide some humorous moments, but, otherwise, the “rescue” storyline is unnecessary to the main plot.
Where Secret Life excels is the depictions of the pets. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that each animal is shown within their homes acting out their fantasies and desires as soon as their owners leave. This is maintained expertly throughout the film. Much like the animals Finding Nemo and Zootopia, the animals here are driven as much by their inherent animal attributes as they are by their personified personalities. Integrating natural behaviors into the characters through mannerisms and speech patterns create the opportunity for delightful jokes (or in-jokes to the pet-owning audience), well as add some honesty to an animated story that displays some Looney Tunes-esque elements.
No animated tale these days can really succeed without some great voice work and this cast is packed to the collar with talent. From aforementioned superstar comedians Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, and Kevin Hart, to the highly-talented Jenny Slate, Lake Bell, and Tara Strong, each utilize their unique gifts to take the animated animals and bring them to life. Their vocals make each character engaging and complex, yet somehow familiar. This, again, plays into the wonderful job the writers did in integrating the original animal personalities into the characters, but would have been nowhere near as successful without such great talent. Admittedly, when the story became a bit slow, it became far more interesting to guess which character was voiced by whom, but all of that was forgotten once the action picked back up.
For those who like their movies to jump out at them, the screening was in 3D and, gratefully, did not diminish the experience at all, though it didn’t enhance it very much either. The colors popped and, occasionally, so did the screen. Ultimately, Secret Life doesn’t require 3D to enjoy it. 3D adds very little in the way of depth to images or a true sense of immersion, but as a fun garnish for kids, it might be worth ponying up the extra cash at a matinee screening.
The Secret Life of Pets is a light-hearted, fun flick that, while aimed at the 5-14 demographic, the whole family will enjoy. There are plenty of laughs for the adults, but the lion’s share are aimed at the pet-owners; those of us who have rescued (or been rescued) and those of us who have raised and loved any animal. This is a story, in many cases, about that bond and one I wish the film had really explored more through the eyes of Max and his friends instead of just touching the surface in favor of a popcorn experience, though there’s absolutely nothing wrong with popcorn.
4 out of 5 for the kids
3 out of 5 for the parents