Review: “The Secret Life of Pets”

3 out of 5 stars.

Everybody can relate to the experience of owning pets. Even if a person somehow hasn’t owned some sort of pet in their entire life, they are at least close to someone who does. And that is the reason why Illumination’s animated adventure “The Secret Life of Pets” is such a success. It draws on that experience to create a fast-paced, funny family film that doesn’t try to be anything more than that. To those looking for the sort of introspection provided by recent big-budget animated features like “Zootopia” and “Inside Out”: look elsewhere.

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“The Secret Life of Pets” centers around Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), a terrier who lives with his owner Katie in a Manhattan apartment. The beginning of the film explores what Max and his neighbors do while their owners are at work (a thought that has probably crossed the minds of pet owners more than once). Among them are Sweetpea, a parakeet; Buddy, a dachshund; Mel, a pug; Gidget, a Pomeranian who has a crush on Max; and Norman, a guinea pig who got lost in the apartment building a while back and has been roaming though the ventilation ever since. Max loves his life with Katie, so it’s to his dismay when she comes home one day with another dog: a big, sloppy, shaggy dog from the pound called Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Max starts scheming how to get rid of Duke, but his efforts end up getting them both lost in the city, where they have a series of adventures including getting caught by animal control and confronting a gang of abandoned pets led by a fierce bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart). Meanwhile, Gidget gets the gang together to try find Max and Duke and bring them home.

The story doesn’t amount to much, and even the more emotionally deep moments are so fleeting that they don’t really resonate. The film gets going quickly and doesn’t stop, jumping from scene to scene and character to character, firing off the jokes and visual gags so rapidly that at times it’s hard to keep up. But that sort of frantic humor and storytelling will keep younger audiences entertained, while adults will enjoy the many mature jokes and references scattered throughout the film, which does get surprisingly dark at times.

The animation is on point with the storytelling: fast-paced and exaggerated, and it works. The visual style of the film is quite stylized to match with the unrealistic movements and characters, and that works as well. In fact, it is very beautiful, particularly in the rare quiet moment when the characters look out over a gorgeous Manhattan skyline. It’s colorful and fun, just like the characters, who all have their unique and funny little quirks. Unfortunately, there are so many characters and the film does move so fast that we don’t really get to know them all. Still, just enough information is fed to the audience to keep us satisfied on most points.

“The Secret Life of Pets” is a solid family film, although it lacks substance. It relies too much on the assumption that the audience will engage with the material because who doesn’t love cute animals, and doesn’t attempt to go beyond that. It’s enjoyable to watch in the moment, but unlike some comparable films from other studios — even Illumination’s own “Despicable Me” series — it won’t win awards, it won’t cultivate a following, and it won’t be memorable.

Runtime: 87 minutes. Rated PG.

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