The Secret Life Of Pets has enormous potential. Its central conceit, at least as depicted in trailers, is something along the lines of Toy Story for domestic animals; the quality of the animation is outstanding; the voice talent is top-notch.
So why, then, is the whole just that little bit less than the sum of the parts? Perhaps it’s the story, a very different story from what the trailers suggest. Max (Louis C.K.) is Katie’s (Ellie Kemper) pet, a terrier-ish dog that Katie dotes on and who, in turn, worships Katie in a way that only a dog can. Then one day Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a big shaggy mutt of a hound who wants to take over the perfect home Max enjoys with his owner. Duke then tries to get rid of Max by giving him the slip while they’re both playing in a dog park, and Gidget (Jenny Slate), a cat who’s inexplicably in love with Max the dog, assembles a team of sundry animals to find him and rescue him from the feral sewer-pets led by Snowball the manic rabbit (Kevin Hart).
The story is derivative (it’s not a million miles from Toy Story 2); it’s also played out with a surprising amount of darkness — Snowball’s threats of unpleasant deaths for the heroes seem inappropriate for a G-rated children’s film, as do the life-threatening situations Max and Duke find themselves in as the ending unfolds. In the meantime, Gidget’s helpers — Chloe the cat (Lake Bell) and Tiberius the eagle (Albert Brooks) the standouts — are voiced by talented actors, but they simply fail to gel, and that’s perhaps the most significant failure of the film.
In the end, The Secret Life Of Pets is good, but simply not good enough. We’ve seen this kind of film done so very much better by others, most obviously Pixar. The anthropomorphism trope was done so much better in the Toy Story series, and much more inventively and subversively more recently in Sausage Party. In the right hands, this could have been a very different film — a much more enjoyable one, and perhaps a film that kept more of the promises of the trailers.
What’s most surprising, though, is that it’s not as good as its support feature. Before the main event is Mower Minions, an animated short that manages more laughs and more actual character development into four minutes than The Secret Life Of Pets found in an hour and a half.
There is one aspect of the film, though, that does deserve a lot of praise. It’s set in New York, and it’s as much a love song to the city as it is a children’s film about pets. Opening with Taylor Swift’s Welcome To New York, it features the city as a backdrop to the pets’ adventures, and the art directors’ affection for New York is clear in every scene. It’s depicted as a massive, brilliant, overwhelming, living thing, and it’s without doubt the most effective thing in the entire film.
If only the rest of the film were as good.