I have often complained about the recent homogenization of numerous Hollywood animation feature films during these years. They all look certainly well-made on the surface thanks to the rapid industrial development and expansion of digital animation since Pixar Animation Studio made “Toy Story” (1995), but most of them are usually less memorable compared to the high standards which have been set by Pixar Animation Studio during last 21 years. Unless they are successful enough to be followed by their sequels, they are quickly forgotten within a few years, and that is all.
In case of “The Secret Life of Pets”, almost everything in this new animation feature film is pretty conventional to say the least. Its story is apparently borrowed from “Toy Story”, and you can clearly see its narrative arc right from the beginning. For its young audiences, it is packed with a number of bouncy kinetic action sequences to excite and delight them. For its adult audiences, it is peppered with indirect jokes to amuse and tickle them. In the other words, this is your average family entertainment, but it actually has more fun and excitement than I expected thanks to the solid efforts by the people behind the film, and I must admit as your humble amateur critic that I chuckled several times along with the audiences around me during this Thursday evening screening.
The story is about a Jack Russell terrier named Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) and his fellow pets living in a neighborhood area of New York City. Since he was found by Katie (voiced by Ellie Kemper) when he was a little puppy, Max has enjoyed a comfortable domestic life under the care of his kind, generous human owner, and he also has neighbor pets to spend time with. Like those animal characters in “Over the Hedge” (2006), they are more intelligent than they look on the surface, and we get an amusing montage sequence showing how they enjoy themselves while their owners are absent.
On one day, Max’s paradise is disrupted by an unwelcome stranger. He is Duke (voiced by Eric Stonestreet), and this big, shaggy Newfoundland brought by Katie is determined to settle in his new home. Max and Duke naturally become hostile and mean to each other right from their very first day, and that eventually leads to a serious situation on the next day. When they are taken to a nearby park along with their neighbor dogs including Buddy (voiced by Hannibal Buress) and Mel (voiced by Bobby Moynihan), Duke attempts to get rid of his annoying problem once for all, but then he and Max find themselves getting separated from other dogs by a series of unlucky coincidences.
And that is how they encounter a white rabbit named Snowball (voiced by Kevin Hart) and his rogue colleagues living inside the sewer system of the city. Since being abandoned by his magician owner, this megalomaniac rabbit has been dreaming of having revenges on all human pet owners someday, and it does not take much time for Max and Duke to realize that they should get away from Snowball and his various animal minions as soon as possible.
In the meantime, Gidget (voiced by Jenny Slate), a white fluffy Pomeranian living in an apartment building across from the one where Max lives, notices that Max and Duke are missing, and this plucky dog becomes determined to find them by any means necessary for her love toward Max. Besides Mel and Buddy, she has other pets to help her, and they are Chloe (voiced by Lake Bell), a grey tabby cat who is more obese than my cousin’s orange tabby cat; Norman (voiced by the co-director/co-writer Chris Renaud), a guinea pig who has been looking for his owner without much success; Sweat Pea (voiced by Tara Strong), a tiny budgerigar whose owner is one of nice small surprises in the movie; Pops (voiced by Dana Carvey), an old basset hound who has many animal connections around the city; and Tiberius (voiced by Albert Brooks), a red-tailed hawk who has to suppress his predatory nature for helping Gidget.
As going back and forth between these two main storylines, the movie throws lots of jokes and actions into its plot, and most of them work well enough to entertain us. The digital animation in the film are bright and colorful, and I like its urban landscapes which look like a modern fairy tale version of its real-life counterpart. The action sequences are often a little too frantic, but they are always accompanied with the sense of fun and excitement, which is buoyed further by Alexandre Desplat’s snazzy score. I also enjoyed a sequence probably inspired by Homer Simpson’s chocolate land fantasy, and I was particularly delighted when a certain immortal line from “Some Like It Hot” (1959) was used at one point.
The co-directors/co-writers Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney assembled the reliable cast for their animation film. While Louis C.K. and Eric Stonestreet effectively complement each other through their distinctive personalities, Jenny Slate, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Steve Coogan, and Albert Brooks have lots of fun with their respective roles, and the special mention goes to Kevin Hart, who finds here a tailor-made character to channel his irrepressible manic energy into.
Like Renaud’s previous animation films “Despicable Me” (2010) and “Despicable Me 2” (2013), “The Secret Life of Pets” is a safe, predictable conventional entertainment product, but there are enough enjoyable stuffs to fill its 90-minute running time. To be frank with you, I do not think I will remember it well until its possible sequel comes later, and I would rather recommend “Zootopia” (2016) or “April and the Extraordinary World” (2015), but why should I complain if I had a fairly good time?
Sidenote: A short animation film featuring Minions is shown before the screening.