“The Secret Life of Pets” – Toy Story, But Fluffier

Written by Matt Butler July 22, 2016

the secret life of pets

With a title like that, and a Pixar-fanboy like me, you can already predict the keywords of this review: Ripoff, Copycat, Creative Bankruptcy. Yes, The Secret Life of Pets does take more than a few story beats from Toy Story (one of my all-time favourite films, I should add), along with some basic character templates. However, Secret Life plays these beats faster and lighter, and the characters stay basic throughout. Does that make it better? Of course not. Does it make it worse? I don’t think so. But it does make it different. Different enough anyway.

Still, they remain separate breeds specifically because of their opposing messages. Pixar will open you up to embracing the inevitable end of good things (they are good for a reason, right?), but Illumination will draw you into the moment, when joys are unfettered and we blind ourselves to the complicated darknesses. Pixar’s will always hit heavier, but there’s something to say about the films on the other side: the lightweight yuk-fests that stand out simply because they don’t annoy you. The Secret Life of Pets is such a movie.

Every breath I take is a cliffhanger!

Max (Louis C.K.) is the quintessential man’s best friend, living a simple dog’s life with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) in a cozy NYC apartment. That is, until a new dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet) bounds in out of the blue. Though it’s clear Katie’s not picking favourites, that doesn’t quiet Max’s suspicions. The two almost immediately turn territorial, as even humans do, and if you’ve seen Toy Story, you know the rest…

the secret life of pets

Okay, I’m not being completely fair. There is a bit more to Secret Life. There’s also a gang of abandoned pets led by a deranged rabbit (Kevin Hart) and a wild goose chase throughout the city to find Max. You know what, screw it, this IS Toy Story. But given Illumination’s track record, story isn’t something worth focusing on in this movie. What did draw my focus was the set design. Illumination is great for their bright poppy colours, even if they get a bit too saturated at times, but here in NYC, they’ve hit a great balance. There’s some real picturesque shots of the pets against a wide cityscape backdrop. It even makes for some great sweeps and curls through the city skyline, and for one of the few instances in a 3D film where the 3D feels… three-dimensional! That’s one point Secret Life has over Finding Dory, it necessitates its cash grab- I mean 3D.

I got big plans. I’m gonna sit here and I’m gonna wait for Katie to come back.

Now, I don’t know if I can say the characters have as many dimensions, but I can say it’s an oddity to hear Louis C.K. channeling cuddliness. Whoever cast him must have seen something none of us could see in his standup, and now we all know what we were missing. It’s the weirdest choice for a lead, especially one so comparatively sanitary as Max, but it works really well. Jenny Slate, no stranger to voice acting, brings her signature mix of sweetness and aggression to Gidget. Albert Brooks seamlessly evolves from fish (Marlin in Finding Dory) to hawk as Tiberius. As for Kevin Hart as Snowball, I’m still a bit shaky on whether the voice fits the character, but I get the sense that’s the intent, because nothing about Snowball seems willing to fit anywhere. He’s a force of chaos, and Hart channels that energy in bounds. And that’s really the best part of the movie, the energy of the characters. What they lack in complexity they make up for in liveliness, and better yet, its not a kinetic fever dream like Hotel Transylvania 2 (But if kinetic fever dreams are your thing, Ice Age 5 opens this Friday…).

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It is a drag just how forgettable Secret Life is though, mostly because it so actively dodges any memorable conflict. A scene with Max and Duke daydreaming in a sausage factory comes to mind. My morbid imagination led me to assume they’d come within hair’s reach of some swirling vortex of automatic butchery, but alas, no such machine exists in this movie. Not that I’m a gluten for schadenfreude or anything (I totally am), but it seems odd how intentionally Secret Life refuses to incite tension, or to even acknowledge its core conflict. Halfway through Max and Duke’s quest for Katie, they divert down Fun-and-Games Lane, allowing the film to continue an extra 20 minutes. It’s nothing to cause upset, it just reminds you what kind of a movie you’re in, a dog’s movie. A movie all about the unconditional joys of pethood, where the only conflict is a presence of complications. Secret Life quashes any tension like a fly and supplies enough laughs and gaffs for even discerning viewers to turn their brains down for the allotted hour and a half. Granted, there is that one scene where the viper nearly needles Max in the butt as part of a demented initiation ritual, but even that is so brief and spontaneous that it hardly matters. It’s lightweight comedy at its breeziest.

Look, Max I’m your friend, OK, and as your friend I’ve got to be honest with you I don’t care about you or your problems!

I know this review sounds like a put-down to kiddy flicks, but there really is some decency in The Secret Life of Pets. Yes, it panders at times, especially if you’re conscious of the Toy Story similarities, but the cast puts their all into keeping this lightweight film flying high. If you’re looking for simple, sweet and occasionally beautiful, go see The Secret Life of Pets.

My Rating: 6/10

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About Matt Butler

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is a strapping young English Major with a fiery passion for the art of cinematic storytelling. He likes long walks on the beach and knows the proper use of 'your' and 'you're'. (Example: I hope YOU'RE having a wonderful time browsing our site, and I hope you enjoy YOUR time reading my film reviews. I wrote them just for you.)

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