Director: Chris Renaud
Cast: Louis C.K., Erin Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Steve Coogan, Ellie Kemper, Bob Moynihan, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Jenny Slate
Release Date: July 8th, 2016
Movie Preview July 2016
In 1995, this
Pixar filmmakers asked a unique question. What do toys do when their owners are away? The animated Toy Story (1995) was built around finding the answer to that query. In 2016, the new film The Secret Lives of Pets asks a similar question: what do pets do when their owners are away?
Comedian Louis C.K. voices Max, the story’s protagonist. Max is a terrier who absolutely adores his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). They have a unique relationship, Max believes. In the New York neighborhood where the two reside, there are at least a dozen other pets (the opening scene beautifully introduces them) with their own unique owners but Max thinks the bond he shares with Katie is special.
That changes when Katie adopts Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a large, overbearing and obnoxious mutt. Max immediately despises Duke and wants to send him away. The two start bickering with one another but during a trip with a clueless neighborhood dog walker, the duo are separated from their peers and forced to work together to find their way home.
On the surface, the feature plays out similarly to Toy Story. There are two main characters fighting over the affection of their owner. One of the characters has a strong relationship with the owner while the other is a new addition to the family. The two protagonists are surrounded by an eclectic group of friends who become embroiled in the rivalry.
Despite such obvious plot similarities, The Secret Life of Pets takes advantage of its unique focus. Director Chris Renaud and co-director Yarrow Cheney set up the opening and closing chapters of the story magnificently — quickly establishing the different types of pets and their different attitudes. While Max is an overenergetic puppy, Chloe (Lake Bell) — the feline that lives right upstairs from Katie’s apartment — is a sarcastic and unenthusiastic cat who spends the day relaxing.
The adventure itself has a variety of funny moments, thanks to the screenwriting team of Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, and Brian Lynch. These writers have used their voice talents to great effect, especially with the perfectly-cast Louis C.K. channeling the put- upon Max and Albert Brooks bringing a grumpy bird to life here. The writing trio have crafted some strong leading characters here. These are the colorful and unique pets that belong to good homes.
The feature’s flaws though are in its darker moments, which feature the abandoned pets who live in the swers. During their adventure together, Max and Duke come into contact with Snowball (Kevin Hart), a ferocious bunny who leads these homeless human-hating animals. Although Hart is funny in the role, there’s a darkness to characters like Snowball that feels ill-suited to this otherwise family-friendly film.
“Death is coming to Brooklyn,” Snowball says when he plots his vengeance against the two main characters, “and it’s got buck teeth and a cotton tail.”
In addition to vengeful characters like that, there are scary situations involving orientation into the animal underground (featuring a snake that leaves a bite mark on victims). There are also several scenes where animals fight with one another and are in physical danger. This feature may be bright in its color palette but it’s way too scary for young children.
For older children and adults though, The Secret Life of Pets admirably embraces its concept and does a commendable job realizing the love and affection pets have for their owners and vice versa. The comedy never achieves the brilliance of the Toy Story features — it never feels as imaginative or as unique as those films — but it does a nice job nevertheless. If this becomes a series, one hopes that the filmmakers will build upon their creation here and offer something less dark and more light-hearted in their next installment.
Review by: John Hanlon