Wholeheartedly delightful for perhaps half the run-time, The Secret Life of Pets is a short detour into the world of our beloved 'leash-lovers'. It promises to have you laughing out loud for the first act, slightly bored with the second, and downright confused, though somewhat charmed, by the third.
Pixar’s Toy Story came out a whopping 21 years ago, folks. It was quite literally a story of toys, who come to life and talk and go on a nice lot of adventures and all that fun stuff. It’s pretty popular, if you haven’t heard. The Secret Life of Pets follows a similar structure – domesticated animals who talk and go on an adventure and do all that fun stuff. There’s actually not much difference between the two films; the relative groups escape, get lost, separated and (unforgivable spoiler alert here) return home nice and cosy to the ignorant bliss of their owners. There is, however, quite a bit of difference in terms of each film’s sense of structure, humour, characters, setting, and of course, how good it is. There’s a lot of difference in that last one. You won’t be seeing Toy Story with small furry animal cast replacements, but boy, oh boy it’s a very recycled plot. A nice plot all the same, but definitely lacking in the realm of originality.
Charming, simplistic and wholeheartedly bizarre at the best of times, The Secret Life of Pets follows ‘T.D’ a.k.a. ‘Tiny Dog’ Max (Louis C.K.) as his settled life with owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) is disturbed by the introduction of big fluffball Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Both are then ‘captured’ by a gang of feral, human-hating animals – led by tiny rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart) – that are hell bent on seeking revenge on the humans who wronged them. And amidst the (occasionally fatal) adventures these animals get up to in the film’s 91-minute running time, we really have to ask – what do our pets get up to all day?
Consistent in humour, sparking less from the main character in the majority of cases than those in the peripheral, it becomes clear about half an hour in that those who do delight the audience’s funny bones are experts in doing so – particularly Jenny Slate’s Gidget, Kevin Hart’s Snowball and Lake Bell’s Chloe, who all at least have a little depth about them. Louis C.K’s Max has no such gravitas, unfortunately, leaning more so on the bland image of the ‘dog next door’. It’s a shame, really, to see all these peripheral characters who cannot possibly be explored in enough depth, have all this potential whilst the character we are forced to follow around for an hour and a half has probably around an eighth of it. I have no doubt that such blandness is the cause of the film’s interest plundering around the half way mark – captivating some in the witty banter which rears its head every now and again, but turning its back on those consumed in their own boredom.
Yes, The Secret Life of Pets is actually quite boring. And don’t get me wrong, the first half an hour or so is relatively riveting. Dogs, cats, birds and hamsters doing their thing; I’m all about animals doing their thing – it’s great! For the first thirty minutes. It’s after everything starts to feel just that little bit familiar; just that little bit unoriginal; just that little bit well-we’ve-been-here-before feeling. I’m tired of seeing the same characters in different bodies play the same game, make the same decisions, the same mistakes, the same relationships. I’m tired of familiarity; I think we all are at this point.
But hey, maybe I’m being too harsh here. After all, it’s a film with an average demographic of about seven years of age. Who cares if the protagonist is bland, as long as he’s likable? Who cares if the plot drops off halfway through, leaving next to no drive and little direction? If you haven’t noticed already, seven year olds don’t tend to care about no drive or no direction.
But compared to last year’s animated summer blockbuster, Inside Out – a film both deep and funny, thought-provoking and silly, with complex characters and an average demographic of around about eight or nine years old – it just doesn’t hold up. One year on and obviously cats, dogs and birds are the way forward- there’s no doubt about that. What’s not to love about a talking dog? Even as a fully grown, near two decade living adult, films about talking dogs will always be on my list of reasons to be happy. What’s missing from The Secret Life of Pets though is just that little bit of drive, and just that tiny bit more heart. (or Hart. More Kevin Hart is always a good option).
The Secret Life of Pets (2016), directed by Chris Renaud, is distributed Universal Pictures in the UK, certificate U.