‘They only make movies about real heroes.’
‘I’m Sherlock Gnomes, sworn protector of garden gnomes.’
“L-Loyd, you hear that? We’ve awakened the unstoppable beast!”
“It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” – Roger Ebert
Answering that eternal question: What do our pets get up to when we’re at work?
The answer is lots of adventures that are slightly too reminiscent of Toy Story. This film has been constantly advertised for the past year, with the first few minutes of the film making up the teaser trailer (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-80SGWfEjM). It all looks so promising at first, hilarious even, then the trailer appeared again. And again. And again. The gags in the trailer that were hilarious at first became funny to kinda funny to slightly overdone. In some ways that sets up the tone for the entire movie – an excellent premise that becomes an overdone caper movie.
Max (Louis C.K.) loves his life. He loves his motley crew of friends – made up of two dogs, Buddy (Hannibal Buress) and Mel (Bobby Moynihan), a cat called Chloe (Lake Bell) and a budgie named Sweet Pea. He loves his spoiled life. But most of all he loves his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). When Katie brings home a dog from the pound called Duke (Eric Stonestreet) Max is resentful at having to share Katie. Duke is determined to make a good impression; if it doesn’t work out with Katie he’ll have to go back to pound who will quickly get rid of him – permanently. Max uses this knowledge over Duke to blackmail him until Duke gets so sick of things he tries to make Max learn his lesson. However teaching Max a lesson results in the pair of them on the run from Animal Control and under the care of “The Flushed Pets”, a gang of abandoned pets. Max and Duke will have to put aside their quarrels if they want to get back home and back to Katie.
Writing the above plot summary confirmed my initial suspicion I had when watching the film. Substitute some of the above names – replace Katie with Andy, swap Max & Duke for Woody & Buzz and the various pet names for Mr Potato Head, Slinky, Rex and Hamm – and you’ve essentially got the plot of Toy Story (1995). One is about what toys get up to whilst humans are away, the latter film is about what pets get up to whilst humans are away.The love-hate dynamics of the central duo were not necessarily invented by Pixar (there’s about 100 years of cinema prior that utilises the trope at various points!) but there are lots of similarities between Max & Woody and Duke & Buzz. Both Max & Woody have spoiled lifestyles being the centre of attention of their owners. Duke & Buzz are both the invaders of the aforementioned comfortable lifestyle. There’s a class between resident and newcomer which leads to them being far from home, they are kidnapped by an evil-doer and must unite to get back home.
This wouldn’t be too problematic if The Secret Life of Pets put a fresh take on it, but it doesn’t. Some of the gags and plot-points are overly familiar, with the film drifting from scene to scene without any sense of urgency. The film opens well, if with a sequence that has become far too familiar, yet becomes worn-out rather quickly. The film has a weird blend of realistic and pantomime, the later accelerates as the film rushes to its climax, never finding the balance and never sitting quite right. I laughed a few times but the jokes failed to elicit a belly laugh, many of the jokes prompted only a tight smile. I wasn’t alone in this reaction – few laughs were emitted by anyone in the 50% capacity screening. The two ten-year olds sat near me, who I used as a sort of human barometer were decidedly quiet throughout.
This is not to say the film is without charm. The animation is truly exquisite – a whole new level of depth in terms of animated cityscapes. New York has never looked this good. I loved how the character were cute but not too cute – each character having a difference about added to the charm of both character and film. The stand out character had to be Snowball the villainous rabbit (Kevin Hart), a character who proved yet again that the villains are always the best character. I also appreciated how dark the film became at times, although considering the film has a U rating there were some themes present that were somewhat surprising.
The film looks brilliant, has some funny moments and some lovely characters. It’s not particularly original but will more than entertain most of the family.