The Secret Life of Pets is one of those cute, harmless, assembly line animated movies where a lot goes on but not much happens. Neither reaching nor striving for the level of emotional and narrative depth of Pixar, Disney Animation Studios or even latter-day Dreamworks’, Illumination Entertainment opts instead for an undemanding, workmanlike approach that mostly serves to sedate children rather than engage them. It’s a strategy I believe wrongly assumes kids don’t deserve or can’t comprehend sophisticated themes or complicated character dynamics (Inside Out was only a year ago, folks). The big question that arises from these types of ‘kids’ movies isn’t so much, “it is any good”, but rather “just how abrasive and numbing is it to adult eardrums and synapses?” This is a particularly necessary inquiry given Illumination’s biggest achievement thus far was inventing those babbling ‘Minion’ monstrosities.
Luckily, Pets never contains anything quite as lazily designed or as obnoxious and blaring as those despicable yellow tic-tacs, even if it is cut from the same ADD-addled cloth. The story concerns a pet dog named Max, voiced by comedian/god Louis C.K. (perfectly harnessing his unique speaking style to deliver comedy tinged with a much needed earnestness). Max is in love with his owner and lives a charmed life surrounded by all sorts of pet friends from neighboring New York City apartments. The ole’ curveball comes when Max’s owner brings home a second dog named Duke (Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet), causing Max to quickly grow jealous. One thing leads to another and both dogs find themselves lost together in New York City, while a search team lead by Max’s friend Gidgit (Jenny Slate, another perfectly cast voice) heads out to find them.
This setup is familiar and provides plenty of room for cartoonish antics, animal themed humor, and an exploration of the bond between pets and their owners. Unfortunately, only those first two aspects are truly present in this movie, as the movie quickly drops any interest in examining the relationship between Max, his owner, and new dog Duke. In its place, we get a lot of inconsequential running around. Max and Duke move from place to place and things just happen to them, escalating at a decent enough clip but without the feeling that there is really an adventure going on, so much as the movie is just chasing its own tale.
The duo are lead or chased to and fro by a gang of owner-hating anarchist pets lead by bunny rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart, giving into all of his loudest instincts without an inch of the relatability he has in human form), while Gidgit’s search is just an excuse to cut between multiple locations to give the appearance that there’s a lot more happening in the story. The truth is, none of it holds together in a way that’s likely to engage anyone over the age of 10. Though Illumination would probably refer to their style as ‘old school’ in their focus on manic movement over any kind of substantial or coherent plot, its important to note that even the simplest of old Chuck Jones cartoons had characters with well-defined goals, and a satisfying flow of cause-and-effect. In comparison, Pets fails even to put together a coherent narrative (even though it steals liberally from the Toy Story playbook at every opportunity), hitting all the requisite story beats but without any sense of agency for its characters.
On the brighter side, Pets is quite well put-together on a technical level. The film’s stylized New York City is a vibrant, colorful environment, and though the human designs are boring at best and ugly at worst, the pets all look suitably cute and are animated with intense care. Fur and hair effects are particularly impressive, giving the animals a tactile angle that will have audiences of any age wanting to reach out and pet them. Alongside C.K., Stonestreet and Slate, most of the supporting cast is equally inspired, highlights being Albert Brooks’ hawk Tiberius (Brooks sure is having a lucrative summer), Hannibal Buress slick dachshund and Steve Coogan’s menacing British alleycat. Only Hart’s utterly obnoxious Snowball, and Dana Carvey’s unconvincing old-geezer impersonation as a paralyzed bassett hound really hit all the wrong notes.
There are also some good nuggets of pet-centered observational humor here and there, though the writers tend to keep the good jokes close to their chest, doling them out every once in a while just to make sure parents haven’t fallen asleep. Mostly though, the filmmakers take the easy route and go for full-on slapstick. Expect a lot of falling down and yelling. Not only did Zootopia have enough inventive animal-themed gags to last an entire movie, but it also managed to layer on deeper themes and reflect the human experience in an authentic way at the same time. Compared to those heights, both comedic and dramatic, Pets feels as watered-down as an animated movie can be. Kids will love both movies. But adults are only likely to love one of them.
The Secret Life of Pets supplies audiences with ninety minutes of inoffensive, colorful hijinks, but this unfortunately comes at a time when movies about talking animals are able to do so much more than just pacify children. Apart from Zootopia’s dense commentary on race relations, The Jungle Book was an eye-popping thrilling adventure story able to enthrall any age group, and for all its flaws Finding Dory tackled the thorny subject of mental illness, unwilling to just settle for being cute. Illumination Entertainment, meanwhile, seems quite content with creating low-key, low-risk movies meant primarily for kids. With the amount of money that they’ve collected on even their most abhorrent Minion-related projects, it seems to be working out fine for them and it’s hard to blame them for sticking to such a financially successful template. However, it also means that, despite its good looks and a handful of funny moments, this is one of the least exciting, least funny and least poignant animated movies of the year.
Score: 2.5 out of 5