Directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney, The Secret Life of Pets is pretty standard animated fare from Illumination Entertainment. Featuring a screenplay by Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, the 2016 animated feature runs a Toy Story template but with pets and other miscellaneous animals.
The real strength of The Secret Life of Pets lies in the quality of animation, which features the extended and exaggerated designs of the Despicable Me series but with more colour and variability. The setting of New York is brought to life with a pet’s eye view and the overstated, slapstick action offers some whiz-bang humour straight out of a Looney Tunes short.
The story opens with Max (Louis CK), a Jack Russell terrier living the good life with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). He spends his days hanging out with his friends, but everything changes when Katie brings home a new dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). The two dogs clash immediately and things go from bad to worse when they wind up out in the city and pursued by animal control.
This leads to several adventures, including a few encounters with the Flushed Pets. The group, led by the vicious bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart), wants to exact vengeance on humans for rejecting them. A rescue effort is mounted by Max’s friends, including Gidget (Jenny Slate) the Pomeranian.
As with Pixar’s Toy Story series, The Secret Life of Pets imagines a world apart from human existence that has functioning organizations, social structures and hierarchies. Much of the movie feels like preparation for a series, as if three or four other films are coming along the assembly line sequence.
As such, the plot is familiar and intended more as a frame than a story. It introduces a host of pets and animals around New York City and trots out an army of voice actors, with the likes of Albert Brooks, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Lake Bell, Steve Coogan, and Bobby Moynihan fleshing out the cast. In fairness, they do impressive work.
And the animation is top-tier, with the textures of the various animals sometimes spectacular and the physical comedy playing by embellished but legitimate rules. The action is captured with clarity, even if things do veer into conventional territory like when the Pomeranian kicks a lot of butt or when the animals decide – twice – to drive a vehicle.
The central pairing of Max and Duke don’t forge much by way of new ground and most of the buddy tropes are present, complete with initial suspicion and the eventual development of a lasting friendship that has major echoes of a certain toy cowboy and a certain toy space ranger.
The Secret Life of Pets isn’t a ground-breaking animated feature by any means and it is largely a ball of fluff, kind of like Snowball. There is some amusement to be found in this brief adventure, even if it feels ripped from a superior picture and more like the start of a franchise than a captivating narrative on its own.