I usually like to make a distinction between “animated films” and “cartoons.” The term “cartoon” is sometimes seen as a dismissive connotation, though I don’t necessarily think that it should be. It just describes a different side to animation. While the animated film side tends to focus on storytelling, those that fall under the category of cartoon tend to emphasize comedy and silliness over anything else. While most of the big animation studios of today are trying to push the boundaries of animated films, Illumination Entertainment (creators of the Despicable Me franchise and its popular Minion characters) proudly churns out feature-length cartoons, with a visual quality that greatly benefits their humor. As such, their works are hardly groundbreaking, but they provide fun doses of escapism. Illumination’s 2016 feature, The Secret Life of Pets, continues this tradition.
As its title implies, The Secret Life of Pets shows audiences what our pets are up to when we aren’t around. Ritzy poodles listen to heavy metal, birds find ways to create flight simulators, and some really do just sit around and wait for their owners to get home.
It’s a simple enough setup, and not entirely original (talking animals are pretty run-of-the-mill in the animation world, and one could argue the concept is a kind of knockoff of Toy Story, but with household pets filling in for the toys). But it makes for some decent family comedy.
The plot centers on a terrier named Max (Louis C.K.), who becomes jealous when his owner Katie brings home a second dog from the pound. This other dog is Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a large, shaggy mutt who is well-meaning, but is quick to take offense to Max’s jealous attitude (once again echoing Toy Story, and the dynamic between Woody and Buzz Lightyear).
The two dogs then become something of rivals. And one day, when Katie is at work, her dog-walker loses control of Max and Duke during one of their feuds. A band of stray alley cats remove the dogs’ collars, and soon enough, Max and Duke end up lost in the city, and go on an adventure to try to find their way back home to Katie. All the while Max’s dog neighbor, a Pomeranian named Gidget (Jenny Slate) begins a search party comprised of other local pets on a quest to find Duke and Max (but mostly Max, with whom Gidget is infatuated).
Like Illumination’s other features, The Secret Life of Pets is an incredibly simple film, but it provides some good, lighthearted fun that can be hard to resist.
The opening moments of the film give a series of glimpses into the film’s concept, which provide some good humor (even if the trailers may have spoiled a good deal of the earlier gags in the film). Once Max and Duke set out on their adventure, however, is where the film tries a more honest bit of storytelling, with some inconsistent results.
When the story is centered more on the humor and the hectic action, it stands strongly enough. But the attempts at more sentimental moments – though an appreciated effort – ultimately fall flat, due to the characters’ largely one-dimensional personalities and lack of proper build-ups.
It’s fun to see what antics Max and Duke find themselves in – particularly when they involve Snowball (Kevin Hart), a psychotic bunny who hates domesticated pets – and Gidget’s rescue mission works well enough as a humorous distraction. But there’s just something that feels off when the film tries to get more emotional. While Toy Story managed to masterfully pull-off a strong, emotional story amid its imaginative setup and more humorous aspects, The Secret Life of Pets only really seems to fully grasp the comedy in its concept.
Again, Illumination should get an ‘A’ for effort for trying to put some heart in the film (if only the Minions had been so lucky in their spinoff flick), but the emotion just feels clunky in execution.
With all that said, the comedy bits do work well enough to get some strong laughs from younger audiences, and maybe even a few from the adult crowd. Plus, they are complimented by Illuminations usual trend of fluid, cartoony animation, making it another great example of the studio’s knack for visual comedy.
The Secret Life of Pets may not be groundbreaking, or even remotely original. But it does what most of Illumination’s films do by giving audiences a roller coaster of vibrant colors, cute characters, and a harmless, irresistible charm.