If you were to make a movie about the secret life of my family pet, our cat Rufus, it would probably have to be set at night because what he does during the day is sleep. However, given he’s sometimes turned up at the back door in the morning with everything up to and including a squirrel in his jaws I’m guessing his nights are more eventful – and possibly not really suitable for a family cartoon.
Thankfully things aren’t quite so red in tooth and claw in the bright and cheerful new movie from Illumination Studios. Max (Louis C K) is a happy dog; a good dog. He is deeply contented with his life and his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) until, that is, Katie brings home a new rescue dog, Duke (Eric Stonestreet). When Duke starts to muscle in on Max’s perfect life, he decides to find a way to get rid of him but he reckons without an underground movement of abandoned pets, bent on world domination.
“The Secret Life Of Pets” is consistently almost great. It ends up being pretty good, but it clearly wants to be great. It’s a cute idea and there are some witty observations and speculations but most of these are in the many trailers and what’s left for the film to reveal is a rather thin and arbitrary story. There are so many story beats and character moments which feel unfinished or lacking polish. They’re the points where Pixar will deconstruct and retool characters and motivations until they’re got it perfected but here it feels like it’s more a case of ‘eh, close enough’. The most glaring example relates to Duke’s backstory. It’s where the film comes closest to genuine pathos but you know, in the hands of Pixar, it’s a moment which would have had you bawling your eyes out.
Although absent from the movie themselves (they turn up in a short before the main feature though), the Minions loom large in this latest offering from Illumination Studios. The characters populating “The Secret Life Of Pets” are clearly riffing on the “Minions Movie” ADHD-style ‘anything for a gag’ approach to development and as a result there’s no emotional core to any of them and their journeys feel superficial. There are, though, odd moments where the movie actually seems to channel the spirit of “The Muppets” more successfully than Disney’s recent attempts, particularly in the Miss Piggy-esque character of Gidget (Jenny Slate).
Visually, though, the film is a real treat. New York is a sunny, colourful, gleaming metropolis: The Big Candy-coloured Apple. The character design is as adorable as you’d expect and even if the poodle as a secret System Of A Down fan joke wears a bit thin, it’s still kind of funny the fifth time around. The slapstick humour will play well with younger children – while Mertmas did enjoy it (he’s almost 10 now and his cinematic eye is set firmly on seeing “Independence Day: Resurgence” on his birthday), his younger sister adored it. The jokes are pretty funny but not as witty as you might expect from the trailer and while the story trundles along quite merrily, there’s no real peril or obstacles for our heroes which aren’t overcome in a few moments. There are a couple of good movie references along the way, too. “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” provides the template for one action sequence and there’s even a weird “Scanners” homage in the supporting (and otherwise uninspired) Minions short which plays before the main feature. For me, it was a pleasant way to spend an hour and a half but, like the “Minions Movie” before it, I doubt I’ll be in a hurry to watch it again.
Illumination are still trying to replicate the artistic success of “Despicable Me” and while “The Secret Life Of Pets” is a step forward from their last attempt, it’s still not quite there. It’ll still do well thanks to the current dearth of decent family films but against the lumbering might of the “Ice Age” franchise and the irresistible appeal of Spielberg’s “The B.F.G.” it’ll have to make its box office grab quickly.