THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS: Toy Story With Animals
The Secret Life Of Pets is an enjoyable experience that will have you laughing & engaging with its colourful characters and vibrant locations.
In only its third movie not featuring Minions (although the lovable little guys do make an appearance in a short film preceding the main feature), Illumination have borrowed from that classic game changer Toy Story. The Secret Life Of Pets is a film that, while not exactly breaking new ground, is a fun 90 minutes, if a little forgettable after the lights have come up and the popcorn is finished.
Max is a terrier living a life of contentment with his owner Katie in New York, a city rarely seen as vibrant and welcoming as here. Often bathed in a golden, early dawn hue, featuring apartments so clean and sitcom-esque the cast of Friends would blush to see them. An upbeat opening featuring swooping, aerial shots of the city set to the soundtrack of Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York” feels like early noughties romcom territory, but it’s pleasing and, thanks to an introductory voice over by Max, played by Louis CK, we’re allowed to share in his happiness with his city and his owner.
That is, until Katie brings home Duke, a huge shaggy dog rescued from the pound and in need of nurturing. Max immediately senses the threat to his peaceful life, and sets in motion a series of events that will lead them all over the city and involve some of the most colourful animal characters seen in film.
On The Right Track
While the main narrative is pretty straightforward and something you’ll see in many other animations, what appeals about The Secret Life of Pets is both the strength of the characters and the steady stream of visual gags and pop culture references. It’s true that these don’t always land – YouTube cat videos now feel as old as time itself, and a Busby Berkeley inspired set piece involving dancing sausages feels out of place.
However, they come in quick enough succession and with enough variance that there’s certainly something for everyone. From Lake Bell’s lazy feline Chloe to Albert Brooks’ hilarious, and criminally underused, apologetic predator hawk Tiberius, the cast keep up the frenetic pace, though the search and rescue portion of the film does detract from what you sense was supposed to be a buddy movie in the vein of Buzz and Woody.
The music is fantastic (who’d have thought we’d ever hear System of a Down in an animated film!) and, along with Illumination’s in-house art style, keeps the movie from flagging during the less interesting parts.
As they move away from Despicable Me and those linguistically challenged little Minions, Illumination should seek to create a varied slate of films if it wants to be mentioned alongside luminaries (no pun intended) such as Disney, Dreamworks, Studio Ghibli and, of course, Pixar.
Here they’ve given the reigns once again to Despicable Me 1 & 2‘s Chris Renaud, alongside Yarrow Cheney, but, while the animation is naturally similar, these two films most certainly feel like they come from different worlds and stand alone. One of the keys to Pixar’s continued success is in its ability to appeal to both adults and children and you feel that, while the Despicable Me films are probably more nuanced, The Secret Life of Pets shows the company are going in the right direction in terms of appealing to a broader audience.
The Secret Loneliness of Pets
As mentioned above, The Secret Life of Pets‘ writers Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul, and Ken Daurio borrow heavily from Pixar’s crown jewel series, with many elements concerning abandonment and loneliness.
An underground faction known as the Flushed Pets (“Freedom forever, domesticated never!” runs their mantra) symbolise the fate that can await those pets who either get lost or lose the interest of their owners, and there are definite parallels between the Flushed Pet’s leader Snowball (brilliantly played by Kevin Hart on a sugar high) and Toy Story 3‘s tragic antagonist Lotso Bear.
Many of the characters here are motivated to seek a connection, for example, the lonely Tiberius, who resists his predatory instincts when told he has the opportunity to make a friend, or the Pomeranian Gidget, nursing a secret infatuation with Max and seemingly unable, or unwilling, to convey this to him. There is also something to be said about the apparently single Katie’s penchant for rescuing stray dogs, housing them in an apartment that some might consider a touch too small for a dog of Duke’s size, but that may be for another film.
When the main duo, too caught up in squabbling with one another to notice the danger that faces them, lose their collars and are chased by two overzealous pet catchers (aren’t pet catchers in movies always overzealous? Do they get commission or something?) there is the very real possibility that they too will be lost and condemned to a life of loneliness. Indeed, an insight into Duke’s past and a tragic denouement in his character’s ark highlights how easily this could happen.
The Secret Life of Pets won’t have you thinking about it for days, or even hours, afterwards. It wouldn’t even be considered the best animated film about animals this year, an award that surely would go to Zootropolis. It is an enjoyable experience that will almost certainly have you laughing and engaging with its colourful cast of characters and vibrant locations.
Animated films about pets seem to be a dime a dozen these days, but we’d love to know what your favourite ones are, and how they affected your attitudes to animals in general. Comment in the box below and join in the discussion.
The Secret Life of Pets opens in US theatres on July 8, and has been out in the UK since June 24. Check here for international release dates.
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