IT IS THE SORT of question that has at some point crossed the minds of all pet owners: What do our animals do when we’re not at home? If Chris Renaud’s The Secret Life of Pets is anything to by, they throw parties, face off with feral cat gangs and try their best to avoid death at the hands of a human-murdering, sewer-dwelling animal movement.
Pets revolves around a terrier, Max (Louis C.K.), whose cheerful, orderly life in an apartment in New York is threatened when his beloved owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) brings home the enormous, dopey Duke, voiced by Eric Stonestreet, from the pound. Soon, the pair and a host of animal friends including a love-sick Pomeranian (Jenny Slate), a lazy house cat (Lake Bell) and a stupid pug (Bobby Moynahan), are on an adventure that takes them down into the Brooklyn sewers and face to face with a human-hating animal cult.
Pets is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, but it feels like a collection of scenes or sketches hastily thrown together. The story seems to have been written for the sole purpose of pulling together a collection of sketches, and relies on extended chase sequences in lieu of real drama for much of the second act. The visual comedy makes up in part for the lack of originality, though not entirely. It’s the same trap into which the Despicable Me spin-off, Minions–also, incidentally, produced by Illumination Entertainment–fell.
The main character isn’t a particularly interesting hero in the way that, say, Woody from Toy Story–to which Pets owes a great debt–is. In fact, it is the characters we see the least of–a self-loathing hawk, a headbanging poodle–who steal the film. The more we see of Max and his co., and his pychotic rabbit antagonist (Kevin Hart), the more tired their idiosyncrasies become and the more two-dimensional they are shown to be.
There is, nonetheless, a great deal to like about Pets. It is animated beautifully, and an upbeat, jazz-influenced score, courtesy of the veteran composer Alexandre Desplat, keeps the tone of the film cheerful and undemanding. It may not entertain adults and children equally in the same way that audiences have come to expect, but it nonetheless achieves what it sets out to achieve, and has just enough wit and style to hold the interest of parents while their children enjoy the toilet humour and Looney Tunes-style slapstick.
The Secret Life of Pets has the great misfortune of having been released in the same year as Zootopia, which is more funny, more intelligent, more imaginative and has a far more engaging plot. But that isn’t to say Pets is a bad film, and it is a testament to the high quality of the animated feature films released in recent years that it feels a little disappointing.