And the 2016 award for most wasted potential goes to The Secret Life of Pets. Even though the main character’s name is Max there was no reference to Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) despite the fact that the entire movie is just one long chase scene.
From the creators of Despicable Me (there’s even a mediocre Minion short film at the beginning) comes a movie 21 years in the making… because it’s basically just a rip-off of Toy Story (1995). The gimmick is that after adults leave for work, all of the pets go and live their own separate lives. Really original. Anyway, the film focuses on Max (Louis C.K.) who has the perfect relationship with his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). But this relationship is threatened when Katie brings home a new dog, Buzz Lightyear, Duke (Eric Stonestreet). While their relationship goes through a rocky start, they must learn to accept their differences when they get lost from home.
The Secret Life of Pets is really good for about the first ten minutes. As the concept is introduced, there is a nice montage of the owners leaving and the pets transitioning into their ‘secret lives’. However, when the story is introduced, it becomes clear how bland and clichéd The Secret Life of Pets really is. And boring. The movie really is just like watching a bunch of animals run around for 90 minutes. Even with some crosscutting between groups chasing (such as a group led by a bunnified Kevin Hart) or rescuing (such as a group led by Jenny Slate as a dog desperately in love with Max), it becomes clear that there really isn’t much substance in the film. Or even really a reason for it to exist past being entertaining for kids.
The animation is great, but there are only so many bright colors and cute puppies you can look at before your brain starts to go numb. The vocal cast is also very impressive, but it feels more like a list of famous names (such as Hannibal Buress, Dana Carvey, Lake Bell, Bobby Moyihan, Steve Coogan and Albert Brooks) than a group of distinct animals. Of course, the screenplay is occasionally funny, but any humor is dragged down by the plot points that are visible from a mile away (or about 3 minutes away, because dogs run pretty fast…).
The movie is aggressively cute, but it feels like it needs several more redrafts before it is able to really approach something worthwhile. Taking place in New York, the film doesn’t even utilize the opportunity to showcase the city, instead opting for the sewers. Perhaps that’s emblematic of something. Even with the plotline being a complete retread of Toy Story, it feels like there’s a lot more that could be explored. Instead, everything is rather surface-level, and the film is quite forgettable.
And if all of this wasn’t frustrating enough, this movie includes one of my biggest pet (heh) peeves: a moment of blatant emotional manipulation for the sake of emotional manipulation. The plot doesn’t progress (it actually slows to a halt). Nothing more is said about the characters. It’s just there to invoke sadness. It’s there to give the impression of having layers, when this movie is anything but. It’s lazy and it’s annoying and the filmmakers should be ashamed of themselves.
The Secret Life of Pets is everything I don’t like about kids movies. Thematically, it’s basically worthless. Structurally, it’s redundant and derivative. Tonally, it just feels so tired. It seems like it’s doing the bare minimum to yield a high box office return. It has beautiful animation and a wide array of famous actors, but that’s about it. Maybe I’m just not passionate enough about pets, but I don’t see a purpose for this movie to exist.
Of course, sometimes my opinion is not the only one that counts. Elizabeth “Quill” Stern, my almost 9-year-old sister, is back once again to give her take.
Dumb question: If pets do not have a secret life then why is the movie called The Secret Life of Pets. And speaking about pets, if anyone knows a movie about pets (for kids), tell me about it. The movie is so funny. And so good. The movie is so silly. All the pets are silly.