From the studio that brought us Despicable Me and Minions comes one of the most anticipated animated films of the summer: what do your pets REALLY get up to when you go to work?
This summer is shaping up to be rather animation heavy. We have already had Kung Fu Panda 3 and Zootroplis in 2016, and over the next few months the really heavy hitters arrive. The BFG, Ice Age 5 and Finding Dory come to Britain in July, but the first big movie comes from Illumination Entertainment: The Secret Life Of Pets.
Louis CK voices Max, a Jack Russel terrier, who lives a rather nice life with Katie (a small role played by the adorable Ellie Kemper) in a rather nice Manhattan apartment building. Every day when Katie goes to work, Max waits loyally at the door for her return. The rest of the pets in the apartment have slightly more interesting lives though – the trailer shows the wacky adventures the rest of them get up to – but not Max though. He is happy with his safe, sheltered life with Katie.
One day though, Katie brings home a huge new dog, Duke (Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet), and upsets Max’s stable home life. Max quickly has enough of Duke’s chaos, and starts knocking vases over in the apartment and threatens to blame Duke, which will make Katie send Duke back to the pound. Then, during a walk in the park, Duke and Max get separated from the rest of their pack, and have their collars stolen by a particularly scary looking gang of cats (led by one of those hairless cats, voiced by Steve Coogan). This leads to them being picked up by Animal Control and shipped off to the pound.
Can Max and Duke escape? Will the rest of the pets in the apartment block be able to rescue them? And just what does New York hold for a group of domesticated pets?
One of the first things that struck me in this film is how few animated films are set in New York. Pixar, Disney, and Dreamworks tend to create new worlds for their films, and literally the only animated film I can think of that is set in the Big Apple is Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie. There have been some animated shows: most of Archer has been set in New York as well, but that show never really used the city to its fullest. Similarly, the short lived HBO sitcom The Life And Times Of Tim nailed the New York vibe, but never explored the city’s landmarks. So it was interesting to see this animated New York, and it looks beautiful.
There’s also the under ground New York, where we spend a big chunk of the film. Max and Duke are taken to the sewer based layer of the Flushed Pets, a group of discarded and unwanted pets led by Kevin Hart’s cute white rabbit Snowball. We see a wide variety of different animals that New Yorkers have got rid of, from Sea Monkeys to huge alligators and snakes and I think a sequel will definitely see them in an expanded role. However, that setting doesn’t feel as interesting as the either the apartment building or the outside world.
The fact that I noticed the scenery and the setting so much should tell you something about the film. The Secret Life Of Pets is, to be honest, a bit ordinary. It has a range of funny characters, and plenty of good vocal performances. The story does feel very familiar (it’s basically Toy Story with pets), but it’s done in a charming enough way, and with a big, interesting world, to warrant a sequel. The film lacks a truly great breakout character, and it does a times feel a bit… calculated, which (and maybe I’m being naive) Despicable Me didn’t. Overall, a decent film, but nothing more.
I look forward to a return though, because with with a few tweaks, it could be a very good franchise to rival Ice Age or Madagascar, although it lacks the quality to reach the heights of the output of your Disneys and your Pixars in recent years. Zootropolis this most certainly isn’t, but it’s slightly better than Angry Birds.
The Secret Life Of Pets is in UK cinemas now, in 2D and 3D, and is released in the rest of the world from 8th July
*There is a Minion short at the beginning of the film that is packed full of laughs, as the little yellow rapscallions try to earn some money to buy a blender to make banana smoothies. Definitely make sure you catch that.
Until next time, stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold. See you soonish.
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