When it comes to feature-length animation films, there are two approaches: the Disney way, which usually combines humor and complex emotions for a rich, satisfying experience, and then everybody else's, which usually involves stocking a movie with as many jokes as possible, and hoping some of it sticks.
The latter is certainly the case with The Secret Life of Pets, the latest idea from the makers of the Despicable Me series. It follows the adventures of Max (Louis C.K.), a small dog who has to deal with the interruption of his idyllic life with his owner (Ellie Kemper) by the arrival of a new, much larger dog, Duke (Eric Stonestreet).
Their arguing over territory leads to them getting lost in New York City. They try to find their way back with help of underworld animals, led by bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart), while neighboring pets, led by Gidget (Jenny Slate), go on a rescue mission to find them.
The film has a decent amount of funny, original material, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that it's a not-so-subtle rip-off of recent Disney successes. Delving into the hidden lives of things that can’t talk? That’s Toy Story. Dogs, cats, and other creatures teaming up for an adventure? That’s Bolt. And the joke about dogs being distracted by the sudden appearance of something was done to much better effect in Up.
Still, it’s hard to go wrong with a slew of cute animals doing unexpected things, and the filmmakers do a mostly solid job of delivering on the promise of the title. The animals trek all over New York City, including locations like the sewer and a sausage factory, which make for rich joke-telling possibilities. It would have been nice had New York looked more real and less stylized, but that’s a forgivable sin.
The barrage of comedians populating the cast is intense. In addition to Louis C.K., Kemper, Stonestreet, Hart, and Slate, you also have Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, and Steve Coogan. While some of them add an extra dimension to their characters, none of them elevate the film beyond its base premise. And, sorry, but Brooks belongs to the Finding Nemo series; having him play a falcon isn’t as clever or interesting.
The Secret Life of Pets has a lot going for it, including great animation and some genuinely funny moments. Had it attempted any kind of deeper emotions and not piggybacked on other films, it might have been a true winner.