Illumination Studios came out of nowhere back in 2010 when they came out with the first Despicable Me. The animation was solid, the story was funny for all ages, and it even had a heart that you rarely seen in animation not made by Pixar. After the inevitable sequel and even more inevitable Minions spinoff, Illumination is looking to land its first hit outside of the Gru Universe – the Gruniverse, if you will.
This was a tough year to come out with an animated film, if your studio isn’t named Pixar or Disney. With Finding Dory being the expected powerhouse everyone expected, Zootopia finding appeal with both kids and adults, and the still looming Moana being released later this year, The Secret Life of Pets unfortunately feels like a lesser effort. And in a year that has also seen The Angry Birds Movie and the eventual release of Ice Age: Collision Course, Storks, Trolls, and The Wild Life, Illumination latest film may find itself running with the rest of the pack.
The best parts of The Secret Life of Pets appear in the original trailer, and it also appears in the very early stages of the film. Its magic occurs when you see the assorted pets interact with their assorted owners. You get to see the different lives of each inhabitant of the different apartments and their relationships with their humans. This sort of plays out like a scene from Rear Window for pet owners, and it shows just how quirky real-life relationships with pets can be. As a pet owner (two cats and a dog), I appreciate the little idiosyncrasies that the film was able to capture about each type of animal, like a cat playing with just about anything and dogs barking at… well, just about anything.
The story revolves around Max, a small dog that loves the relationship he shares with his human, Katie. He wouldn’t change anything for the world. Unfortunately, Katie brings home a huge, shaggy dog from the animal shelter, and Max finds that the apartment isn’t big enough for two dogs. As the two dogs butt heads, they wind up finding themselves lost in the city, in a desperate attempt to get back to their home. If that plot outline sounds a lot like the original Toy Story, you’re right, and if you add a couple of bumbling dog catchers and a crazy bunny running an underground clan of unwanted pets, this is that movie.
Since Toy Story, Pixar has been able to, more often than not, garner crossover appeal between kids and adults. We saw it most recently with last year’s Inside Out. Their ability to do this has changed the game and how we view animated features. It’s a bit unfair to chastise a cartoon movie for not setting such lofty goals, much in the way that The Secret Life of Pets seems comfortable appealing mostly to kids, but that is the world these films play in nowadays. The film itself isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s not as good as it should be. There are a few fleeting moments where it nails it, like in the opening moments, but when it devolves into a madcap, fantastical adventure in the sewers of New York, I found myself disappointed that the filmmakers decided to not shoot for the stars.
The Secret Life of Pets is not a bad film, but it’s wholly underwhelming in telling a story that isn’t quite fresh, leaving a clever and relatable premise high and dry. The animation is solid and the all-star voice cast is perfectly fine, but it’s a movie that doesn’t care to go anywhere others haven’t gone before.