There is a great central idea at the center of The Secret Life of Pets but it soon becomes apparent that the idea doesn’t have much depth. The trailers and marketing for the animation is essentially the first ten minutes of the movie and it isn’t difficult to see why. The first ten minutes are all about what pets do when the humans leave them alone for the day and it is genius. There is plenty of hilarious moments, from a very greedy cat to a rock-obsessed poodle.
The issue is when you try to develop this concept further. The Secret Life of Pets is not really about what pets do when humans aren’t around at all. It is actually a very loose Toy Story clone. The story is about Max (played by an always funny Louis CK) having a new “room-mate” thrust upon him in the form of a larger, hairier and scarier dog called Duke (played by Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet). The pets then find themselves lost in the city and trying to get back to their owner, at the same time forced to overcome their differences.
These are themes we have seen before and Toy Story is a clear and close comparison. Swap out Max and Buddy for Buzz and Woody and pets having a secret life for toys having a secret life when humans are not around and the parallels become clear.
There are at least one or two clear messages that The Secret Life of Pets is trying to convey but not doing a very good job of delivering. One of the strongest themes is the idea of abandoning your pets. Max and Duke come across the “Flushed Pets” who live in the sewer and it offers an opportunity to convey a clear message in caring and responsibility. It doesn’t commit though and leaves these group as the villains rather than a misunderstood collective.
What it does offer is the best character of the movie in Snowball the bunny, played perfectly by Kevin Hart. Regardless of how you feel about the skyrocketing comedian, his voice talents elevate the tiny villain and also deliver some of the best moments of the film. From the moment he is on-screen, the movie becomes funnier.
Humour is something that the film does have in places. The story lacks depth but there are some great, very clever set-pieces which elevates the movie. A trip into a sausage factory, a Matrix style ass-kicking by a small fluffy dog or the initiation ceremony for a scary gang are all moments which entertain and surprise in equal measure.
Unfortunately, the story has to have something about it to really make the movie great. There is some heart in the central pairing but where films like Toy Story made you care about the resolution in the conflicting pairs relationship, the peril at the end of Secret Life doesn’t resonate enough. It means that the finale of the movie really lacks heart when it has the potential to be something much more.
Overall, The Secret Life of Pets is a very good idea stretched to breaking point across a movie. The story lacks depth and has more than a passing resemblance to another successful animated franchise but then comes the great set-pieces which show how clever the film could have been. With more care and time over the central message and central characters, this film could have been something special.
Rating – 3
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)