Toy Story was released over 20 years ago. Ever since then, nary a year has gone by without 2 or 3 animated family films being released, from an ever increasing variety of studios. The fastest growing studio in recent years has been Illumination, who shot to success with Despicable Me, and 6 years later have created The Secret Life of Pets. It’s telling regarding how far the genre has come, that The Secret Life of Pets feels so thoroughly workmanlike, never particularly trying to strain outside the confines of its predecessors, and instead relying on its talented cast to maintain the interest of the parents who bring their kids to the film.
The plot of the film plays out like an uncanny mix of the Toy Story films, initially seeming like a beat-for-beat recreation of the original. Louie CK plays Max, a Jack Russell belonging to Ellie Kemper’s young woman, Katie. He lives a seemingly idyllic life, happily hanging out with a variety of animals from the same apartment block during the day, played by a who’s-who of modern stand-up comedy. However, one day Katie brings home a large, shaggy dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), and the two pets develop a rivalry. Inevitably, through a series of mishaps the two end up going on an adventure across the city, encountering colourful characters like Kevin Hart’s villainous Snowball (a white rabbit) and Albert Brooks’ Tiberius (a hawk).
The early scenes of the film are extremely charming, as the filmmakers spend time developing the world these animals live in, and letting The cast bounce off one another. There’s a sense of laid back banter that’s rarely found in modern animated fair, which makes it all the more disappointing when the more traditional plot wheels start turning. The second and third acts of the film feel very much like going through the motions, and much of the early work spent developing key characters is dropped in favour of imitating prior films (there’s a flashback that feels a lot like the When She Loved Me sequence from Toy Story 2). Numerous action sequences seem shoehorned in, feeling overbearing in a film that initially seemed wilfully low key (by my count, there are three car chases).
The film’s saving grace is its supremely talented cast, even if many of them are under-utilised. Louie CK does excellent work as Max, and actually stretches quite far from his usual sad-sack persona, as Max is often an embodiment of hyperactivity. Jenny Slate is equally strong as Gidget, a Pomeranian who pines for Max. Her character is fairly under-developed (her main trait is her love for Max), but Slate’s voice is so distinctive and energetic that Gidget becomes quite endearing. The only off-note amongst the cast is Eric Stonestreet, who doesn’t do enough to distinguish his character from CK’s. The two are supposed to be polar opposites, but that doesn’t come through in his performance, although admittedly he is given much less to do than CK. The cast is rounded out by several heavy-hitters like Hannibal Buress and Lake Bell, but they have so few lines that it begs the question of why they were cast at all.
The Secret Life of Pets is an undeniably derivative film, but it derives itself from excellent films, and it does have its own particular charm in the first act. It may become less distinctive as the film goes on, but it’s never boring, and the cast is strong enough to hold an audience’s interest for its 87 minute runtime. A solid, entertaining film, but at the same time, entirely unremarkable.