Albert Brooks, Animated Movie, Animation, Bill Murray, Cinema, Despicable Me, Disney, Eric Stonestreet, Film, Finding Nemo, Garfield, Joan Cusack, Lake Bell, Louis C. K., Movie Review, Pixar, The Secret Life of Pets, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Up, W.A.L.L.E
“The Secret Life of Pets” is a family film which will appeal to anyone who has grown up with an animal in their household.
The plot isn’t really what drives “The Secret Life of Pets”, because any conflict that arises is clearly going to resolve itself in due course, but I have to say that it’s probably the weakest aspect of the movie. You can’t really feel any sort of trepidation for the fate of the characters because the tone is quite intentionally pleasant, so instead you’ll likely find that each scene could play out in isolation and still have the same impact.
Still, what I find appealing about animated films rarely relates to their story, so the fact that the plot felt a little bit like a distraction wasn’t a huge issue for me. I want films of this ilk to be visually striking, boast interesting and engaging voice performances, and make me laugh; “The Secret Life of Pets” achieves these targets.
Of course, this film would’ve been better had the story been less derivative and more powerful; after all, I can’t deny that the very best animated films (“Toy Story”, “Up”, “Finding Nemo”) have strong, emotional narratives. The first act of “The Secret Life of Pets” plays out in a noticeably familiar fashion, as our lead protagonist Max (a Jack Russell Terrier voiced by Louis C.K.) has his home life invaded by a new family member, Duke (a Newfoundland voiced by Eric Stonestreet). If you’re wondering why this is familiar then I should perhaps take you back in time to 2004 when Bill Murray made the questionable decision to take on the role of Garfield in the film of the same name. In that film everything is going swimmingly for Garfield – he loves his owner and he’s living it up as an only child – that is, until another pet (Odie) enters his home and turns his life upside down.
Now, you might think that this is a small similarity, especially given that I’m only considering the initial setup for both films. However, things get a little less insignificant as “The Secret Life of Pets” progresses and the pairing of Max and Duke get lost in the city. Things don’t develop in exactly the same way as they did in “Garfield” (if they did then we’d probably be talking about a law suit), but there are striking similarities which take away from any semblance of originality that the plot of this film may have had.
In “Garfield” Odie gets lost and Garfield has to rescue him – this is a difference because in “The Secret Life of Pets” both Max and Duke are taken by Animal Control, not just Duke. Nevertheless, Animal Control get involved in both films and there’s an elaborate rescue mission to get the captured pet(s) back, and in fact by the end of “The Secret Life of Pets” it is indeed the first pet (Max) that has to rescue the newcomer. Both films end with the former enemies becoming friends as a result of their adventure, and thus their stories begin and end in the same way – they take different routes to their destinations, but they hit similar beats as they go and they ultimately end up at the same conclusion.
As I previously mentioned, the best animated films have an emotional aspect to their narrative. In “Finding Nemo” the plot touches on loss and raising a child as a single parent; “Toy Story” is all about identity; and “W.A.L.L.E” uses themes of loneliness and romance, not to mention the impact of technology on society and the environment. So, to reach those lofty heights this film needed to have some sort of an emotional hook at the start to carry the plot forward (think of the Pixar’s “Up”), or to have a moving scene in the middle to make everything which came before more impactful. This isn’t always an easy thing to inject into an inherently amusing and light-hearted film, but the frustrating thing when it comes to “The Secret Life of Pets” is that it had every opportunity to preserve its tone whilst exploring potentially painful ideas.
The fact that the film revolves around pets gives it a leg-up to begin with, because most people will have had a pet at some point in their life or at least come into contact with someone else’s and felt some sort of affection towards it. This could’ve easily been exploited as there are a group of animals in the movie which have been discarded by their owners and feel bitter at this maltreatment, yet very little effort is made to tap into themes of grief and abandonment. I’m not saying that cats and dogs being left by the side of the road should’ve been explored in excruciating detail – this would’ve changed the nature of the film as a whole and probably upset the young children in the audience – but there’s a way that this type of material can be handled that gives a film of this ilk greater resonance. If “Toy Story 2” can do it with an annoying cowgirl doll named Jessie (Joan Cusack) then this movie could’ve done it with an adorable Jack Russell Terrier.
This is made even more exasperating by the fact that the film gives itself the perfect opportunity to tug at the audience’s heartstrings when it is revealed that Duke’s previous owner actually loved him but has sadly passed away. This information could’ve been used to add a whole new dimension to the character, but instead the writers gave the idea no time to develop and quickly moved on. It should’ve acted as a turning point in the story, as Max could’ve realised that the living situation at his home had been forced on Duke just as much as it had been forced on him, but this simply didn’t happen. What could’ve been the best moment in the film became a plot device to keep Duke around once the story of the movie resolved itself, meaning that a moment which should’ve been used as one of genuine character development turned into a cheap and disappointing side note.
Personally, if I’d have been writing this scene I would’ve made it so that Duke already feared that his owner had passed away, or at least that Max suspected it, and I certainly wouldn’t have involved the cat which was now living in Duke’s old house. I would’ve allowed the reality of the situation to hit Duke like a tonne of bricks and made the scene feel much more significant than it actually was in the film itself. Or, I would’ve made it so that Duke was abandoned by his owner and in denial about it.
Obviously this is a big issue with the film for me which is why I’ve spent so long trying to make my opinion clear, but it should be noted for those of you that haven’t seen the film that the scene I’m talking about is a small one, and it’s shortcomings might not detract from the positive aspects of the film depending on your perspective. There’s a lot to like about “The Secret Life of Pets”, and if you’re looking for escapism then it’s likely that you’ll be pleased with what you see.
There’s a lot of comedy in the film that works on more than one level; for example, when Chloe (a tabby cat voiced by Lake Bell) paws a ball across the room to distract Max and his friends it will make children laugh because they like dogs and they like the idea that the cat is messing with them, but it will also make older audience members chuckle because they recognise that the behaviour is fitting of a dog. It’s clearly not a film which will make you laugh through social commentary, so when I say that jokes work on more than one level I’m not saying that it’s a particularly insightful film, but what I’m saying is that the animators and writers have created a movie with accurate animal mannerisms and pleasantly silly dialogue, and subsequently melded the two together in as interesting a way as you can hope for in a very light-hearted film.
I should also mention that all the voice performances are great and that some scenes are genuinely hilarious to the point where I actually laughed out loud, particularly those scenes which included Tiberius (a hawk voiced by Albert Brooks) trying to quell his predatory instincts. There are a variety of different animals all of which are well-realised and entertaining in their own way, and the hijinks that they’re involved in are entertaining even if the story is predictable.
All in all, “The Secret Life of Pets” is a good film, but a great family-friendly feature. There’s a lot to like about it, but for older audience members the story may feel slightly thin. I would recommend it, especially if there’s nothing else to watch on a rainy day, but with the warning that it lacks real depth.