The Secret Life of Pets Review: Off the leash

Chad White

Loves: Louis CK, Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart, Cartoons
Likes: Dana Carvey, Bobby Moynihan
Dislikes: Minions-based shorts
Hates: Those fucking Minions. Period.

Liberate forever! Domesticated never!

Illumination Entertainment has been gracing the silver screen for the better part of the past decade with movies that barely scrape the surface of entertaining. Save for the original Despicable Me, the production company has released the likes of Hop, The Lorax, and a spinoff of their original franchise with Minions. They’ve cultivated a brand around the vaguely Spanish speaking, banana loving creatures whose soul purpose is to serve. Now, they’re finally stepping up their game with a novel idea -- the first since Hop (The Lorax was based on the book of the same name). But how does The Secret Life of Pets stand against the other animated movies this year?

Louis C.K. plays Max, a dog who has spent his entire life with Katie (Ellie Kemper). The two are inseparable -- that is until Katie leaves for work every day -- and nothing can come between their love. The good life comes crashing down when, one day, Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), who threatens to take Max’s place in the dog hierarchy. A tussle sends the boys on a journey to find their way back home. When she sees that Max is missing, the dog from across the street, Gidget (Jenny Slate), acquires the help of pug Mel (Bobby Moynihan), fat cat Chloe (Lake Bell), hot dog lenth Buddy (Hannibal Buress), lost guinea pig Norman (Illumination staple Chris Renaud), hawk-eyed Tiberius (Al Brooks), and paralyzed pup Pops (Dana Carvey). They all set off on their own quest to stop animal liberator Snowball (Kevin Hart) from killing Max and Duke.

For the first time, Illumination has a Pixar level cast and it works against them. While Max and Gidget have their due, characters like Mel and Buddy often fall to the wayside. For the over-shown Pops, and the underutilized Dana Carvey, he isn’t on screen that much. The movie runs at a crisp 90 minutes with jokes flying faster than the story can keep up. For instance, Moynihan's Mel is thrown to the wayside after a certain point -- a problem that Kung Fu Panda 3 suffered as well. Tiberius, on the other hand, is given a dark and graceful introduction as potential antagonist then turns into the groups’ top performer.

The script, though, is pretty well done for a children’s movie. It’s rushed due to the short runtime but it manages to fit a lot in it. There are the cliched “dog barks at ball/stick/shoe” jokes but those are performed by some of the best conversational comedians today. C.K.’s line delivery is beyond exceptional with weird pauses, unfinished or interrupted segments and a matter-of-fact tone. Hart seems out of place as his character doesn't match with his voice as tightly as the others do. Slate and Brooks in particular shine off of one another.

More positivity regarding this movie can also be focused on the sound design. Pets has all the pitter-patter and slurping that its furry characters create. The music is so well done too with bombastic noise during chase scenes and aww-inducing undertones during more tender moments. An argument can be made that it’s better than the muddied waters of Finding Dory, whose music was mostly drowned out.

Should you watch The Secret Life of Pets?

As far as children’s movies go, The Secret Life of Pets hits all the marks. It’s bright colors, dull story, and cute characters are sure to be a hit with the playground going crowd. Parents should be entertained too with the amount of classic comedians involved. Admittedly, even the ending is sweet and worthy of a tear shed. But, all in all, Pets is a nice appetizer for other animated films coming later this year.

Notes

  • This is the only cartoon movie that dared to put in animal buttholes. I salute you, Illumination.
  • I’d like to argue that Sunday mornings are the best time to see these types of movies. Yes, a lot of parents are taking their dumb kids to see it then but I did manage to get a row all by myself. Probably because I’m a grown man seeing these things alone.
  •  Oh my God. Jenny Slate needs to be nominated for the exceptional job she did. Her voiceover work is truly magnificent. Al Brooks is still my favorite among the cast though.
  • In movie advertisements for Sing? Really, Illumination? Class it up. If I gave scores, I’d dock points right about now.