Directed by Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud
Written by Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch
Starring Louis CK, Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Heart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, and Albert Brooks
Runtime: 90 minutes
For every film, there first must be an idea. That idea then evolves into a story and from that comes characters, a plot and ultimately some sort of conclusion. Some films, however, never quite make it out of the idea stage and those ideas get a standard, unimaginative story forced onto them and end up being cleverly conceived and poorly executed. That is where The Secret Life of Pets ends up. The idea of what pets do when we leave the house gets a standard, cliché story dumped on it, leaving it mostly unentertaining.
Said story is that Max (Louis CK, so involved in his concept of what a small dog would sound like that he leaves none of his trademark wit or personality in the character) is Katie (Ellie Kemper)’s faithful dog, awaiting her by the door each day. He has made friends with the other animals in his building and the adjacent one, including Gidget (Jenny Slate) who is the dog in the window directly across from Max, Chloe (Lake Bell), a fat cat from upstairs; Buddy (Hannibal Buress) and Mel (Bobby Moynihan), also upstairs dogs; and SweetPea, a budgie that doesn’t talk. They often congregate in Max’s apartment during the day, just to hang out. One night, Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), an enormous dog that Max immediately doesn’t like because he wants Katie all to himself. Duke isn’t particularly nice either, taking Max’s bed because he doesn’t want to sleep on a blanket. Max wants Duke out and starts trying to figure out ways to get Katie to kick him out. Duke pulls a reversal and tries to throw Max away so he can have the apartment to himself, when they are ambushed by stray cats who cut off their collars, getting them nabbed by Animal Control.
They’re broken out by Snowball (Kevin Heart), leader of the Flushed Pets, while he’s breaking out one of their own. They convince Snowball that they hate humans and want to join up, and then something goes horribly wrong, putting the Flushed Pets on their trail, while Gidget enlists her friends and a falcon named Tiberius (Albert Brooks), with the help of Pops (Dana Carvey), a paralyzed old dog that knows the city well, to go looking for Max (whom she secretly/not so secretly loves). So then the chase begins.
The trouble is that this plot is so wrote that you already know what’s going to happen. Even worse is that the handful of 3 minute trailers tell the whole story without you having to sit through 90 minutes of flat jokes and predictable story threads. The jokes aren’t all bad, though. The writers, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, also wrote Despicable Me 1 & 2 as well as Minions, and the other writer, Brian Lynch, wrote on Minions and did story work on Puss in Boots, so there is some good stuff here but not much. Most of the good stuff went to Snowball (that or Kevin Heart did what the other comedians in the cast didn’t do and insert his personality and humor into what he was given), and even still, it wasn’t enough. The story is so bland and predictable the best jokes ever written wouldn’t have been able to make it interesting. Add to that some pretty flat characters, with only Snowball and Gidget having any memorable character traits, and you get a pretty mundane film.
Directors Chris Renaud (who, with Pierre Coffin, directed Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2) and Yarrow Cheney (production designer on Despicable Me 2, making his directorial debut here) certainly fill the frame with colorful images and wonderful character design, making the film look great. That hardly matters when their pacing is off, making the film seem much longer than the 90 minutes it runs, and barely give us anything cleverer than the character introductions, a sequence that served as the teaser trailer a year ago and every frame of it is in the film.
And that is a major problem with the film: the trailers told you everything you needed to know without watching the film. The original teaser was funny the first time, even the second and third time, but eventually it wore out its welcome and began to be tedious and then it shows up frame for frame in the film, having already been sapped of any laughs by repetition. Then the story trailers started coming out and I knew that a clever concept had been reduced down to just that with no expansion or creativity put into it. I will admit the inclusion of the Flushed Pets gang was new, but what they did with them wasn’t and it ended up being a wasted opportunity.
Being a big fan of Illumination Studios prior outings, I had high hopes for this film. Unfortunately, it seems that they need Gru and/or the minions in their films to make them interesting. If I sound too dismissive based on one film, it’s because their next film, Sing! is due in theaters later this year and the trailers have a similar feeling to those of The Secret Life of Pets and I already feel like I’ve seen the film. I hope that’s not the case, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
The Secret Life of Pets ended up being just another good idea ruined by a perfunctory plot that led its characters nowhere unpredictable or unprecedented. Using the excuse that ‘it’s just a kids movie’ still doesn’t give it the right to be lazy, and that’s what it feels like it is. Animated films have come a long way over the last 25 years and the best ones engage the parents as much as they do the kids. It’s not asking too much for an animated kids movie to do something different because they are films just like anything else and people don’t like lame, recycled plots in live-action stuff either. It takes more than a good idea and some cute characters to make a good film, and that’s all The Secret Life of Pets has.