Genre: CG Animation
Director: Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney
Cast: ￼Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell, Jenny Slate, Bobby Moynihan, Hannibal Buress, Albert Brooks
Runtime: 1 hr 31 mins
Released By: UIP
Opening Day: 1 September 2016
Synopsis: For their fifth fully-animated feature-film collaboration, Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures present The Secret Life of Pets, a comedy about the lives our pets lead after we leave for work or school each day.
‘Wonder what our pets do all day?’ teases the latest animated comedy from the creative minds behind ‘Despicable Me’ and ‘Minions’ – and indeed, what a brilliantly simple yet intriguing question, considering how many of us own pets and how much time they spend at home during the day while we’re out at work. As imagined by Illumination honcho Chris Meledandri, some like the rotund feline Chloe (Lake Bell) help themselves to whatever’s in the fridge, some like the puffy Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) indulge in Mexican soap operas, and others like the aging basset hound Pops (Dana Carvey) hold block parties. Oh yes, it’s a whole other outrageous world that goes on among the pet community when their owners are out, including cake-mixer massages, frat chugalugs from the toilet and poodly death-metal headbanging.
Co-directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney establish these home-alone high jinks right at the start, but as it turns out, settles for a much more conventional narrative to anchor the rest of the madcap shenanigans. In fact, if you’re already thinking that ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ is ‘Toy Story’ but with critters, you’ll be proven right in more ways than one – like that Pixar classic, the familiar but undeniably witty script by Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio centres on the rivalry between a beloved king-of-his-castle and the new interloper vying for number-one status in their master’s eye. The former in this case is a pampered Jack Russell terrier Max (voiced by comedian Louis C.K.) living the perfect life in New York City with his loving owner Katie (Ellie Kemper), and the latter a bear-like Newfoundland mutt named Duke (Eric Stonestreet) whom Max deems ‘the death of all good things’.
Their feud lands them lost in the streets of New York City, where they will find themselves at the mercy of feral alley cats (led by Steve Coogan’s freakish Ozone) as well as a ragtag band of abandoned former domestics who call themselves the Flushed Pets and whose leader is a cute but psychotic bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart) hell-bent on the destruction of humans. Motivated by her infatuation for Max and inspired by the telenovela ‘La Pasión de la Pasión’, Gidget assembles Chloe, Pops, a red-tailed predatory hawk (Albert Brooks), a perpetually-lost guinea pig (Renaud), a hyperactive pug (Bobby Moynihan), a laid-back dachshund and an adrenaline-seeking budgerigar (Tara Strong) to find them. Notwithstanding, it is the bad pets who steal the show – besides the insanely adorable (pun intended) Snowball, there is a tattooed pig (Michael Beattie), a one-fanged viper, Sea-Monkeys and a couple of sewer gators.
With such a large ensemble, there is hardly room to build the thematic depth, narrative complexity, character investment or emotional poignance of a Pixar movie; instead, the emphasis here is on keeping up the manic energy through a constant stream of chase sequences, action set-pieces and anarchic humour, so much so that you wish they’d pull back on a little on the throttle from time to time to give the throughline more breathing space. Yes, amidst the almost breakneck pace from start to finish, neither the tension between Max and Duke nor the subtle message about the responsibility of pet owners survives the almost breakneck pace from start to finish. Not all is lost though – and little in fact, especially if all you’re looking for is pure unadulterated fun.
Living up to the Illumination brand name, the visuals are bright, colourful and absolutely gorgeous to look at. Colours pop off the screen, and New York City in autumn never looked quite as perfect as it does here in vibrant shades of red and orange. Just as accomplished is the character animation, lively, expressive and oh-so-dynamic through the streets, alleyways, sewers and rivers of New York City. The elaborate set-pieces buoy with playful absurdity, including a dramatic rescue along the Brooklyn Bridge. There is also a fantastically surreal song-and-dance number in a sausage factory. Like we said, there is hardly time to catch your breath before you’re plunged headlong with the characters into yet another outrageous scramble, but the laughs go hand in hand with the action that pretty much are non-stop in both quantity and velocity.
Still, there is an undeniable sense of missed opportunity after the pile-up of fur and feathers settle. As it turns out, some of the funniest and most inventive bits are already in the trailers, although watching them all over again undeniably doesn’t diminish their amusement. But ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ could have been a lot more with a stronger story and character development, both of which are sacrificed amidst the busy animal antics. So despite a similar premise but with pets, this is no ‘Toy Story’; as an escapist summer movie, it is great fun for the whole family with an especially sweet parting shot for the pet owners amongst us.
(Lively, colourful and often laugh-out-loud hilarious, this frenetically-paced action adventure trades character investment and emotional payoff for pure manic fun)
Review by Gabriel Chong