Yes, domesticated animals are cute. But haven’t you always wondered whether a dog is just as cute when you’re not around? Maybe they’re just toying with you. Or maybe they just think everything is amazing. The Secret Life of Pets asked me whether I wanted to see some pets go on an adventure without the knowledge of their owners, to which I realized by the end of the film: no, not really. I’ve seen that film already. It’s called Toy Story.
I’m surprised it has taken this long for me to see a film so blatantly steal from Toy Story, arguably Pixar’s best film. For companies to have taken so long to do it shows that they have had plenty of their own ideas. Even Illumination Entertainment has found success in their own original properties. Which is why it is weird that a movie centers around a dog who gets a new co-habitant that he feels will steal his thunder, so he then attempts to get him kicked out of the house. But then his own guilt and omission of the others’ feelings and past makes him care for his new partner.
The Secret Life of Pets centers around Max (Louis C.K.) who loves his owner so much that he spends most of his day sitting and waiting for her to come home. Until Duke (Eric Stonestreet) is adopted by his owner, forcing him to share his space with the bigger dog. The two do not get along, and it eventually leads to them being captured and chased by a group of undomesticated pets fronted by the adorable rabbit, Snowball (Kevin Hart). While I find Hart rather grating nowadays due to his consistent presence in everything, I was infatuated with the idea of pets who hate the domesticated. That came off as a smart bit of world building that has its parallels with many organizations and groups within society. But it isn’t enough to take The Secret Life of Pets to the next level. This is not Zootopia.
The fact of the matter is that a lot of the jokes rely on you finding animals cute. I’m not going to sit here and say that I am heartless and don’t think a cat is cute, but I also know when a movie is relying solely on that notion for its laughter. So there’s a poodle that has a fancy house and a fancy owner, but when her owner leaves she’s playing the loudest Nu Metal or Hard Rock she can find. There’s an entire montage at the beginning of the film that lasts far too long and is centered on pets being pets. It’s unnecessary and just hammers home the entire point of the film.
When I realized that the message was just that you can’t judge a book by its cover I barfed a little inside. Once again, I have no qualms with the themes of the film, I just don’t see why it needed to exist and waste a lot of the voice talent that it has on a Toy Story-like film. Having actors like Albert Brooks, Hannibal Buress, Steve Coogan, Bobby Moynihan, Louis CK, and so on is telling of how close to straight-to-DVD this could have been. Hell, I’m not even convinced this movie would have been released in theaters if it wasn’t for a Minions short being attached to it and Zootopia doing so well with a sort-of similar message (if you only look at Zootopia on a surface level).
There is a weird moment in the film when Max and Duke take a detour in the journey (essentially making the stakes feel flat) and discover more about Duke’s past. It is difficult to watch because you know where everything is going to go already by the time you’re 30 minutes into the film. In addition to this, where it goes is uninteresting. There is an attempt to be deeper than it ends up being, but with the stakes feeling very low-key and the endpoint of the film feeling absolute, there isn’t much to make you care about the characters.
All that being said, the film is 87 minutes long, moves at a fairly brisk pace and looks nice. The voice acting is good and there are even jokes that stand out while you’re watching it. Do the jokes last beyond its runtime? Nope. In fact, nothing about this movie feels memorable at all. Just go watch Toy Story again. There are three of those movies, all of which are better and you can just pretend the toys are pets. Nothing will be lost in translation.