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Thursday, July 7, 2016

Review: THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS treads old ground

It’s a premise I perhaps expected too much from: What do pets get up to when their owners are at work all day? Turns out the answer is “pretty much the same thing as the toys in Toy Story.”
The Secret Life of Pets, an animated movie from Illumination Entertainment (the studio that created Despicable Me), showed up in theaters shortly after the recent animal-centric Zootopia from Disney. Viewers expecting similarities between the two would be better off referencing the 1995 classic Toy Story, which is beat for beat pretty much the same film. The Secret Life of Pets follows privileged house pup Max (Louis C.K.), who enjoys a very close relationship with his owner Katie and lives in the heart of New York City. One day Katie comes home with a new dog – the gigantic and fluffy Duke (Eric Stonestreet) – and has trouble sharing the attention and affection of his owner. Though Max schemes to get Duke kicked out, the pair of dogs get lost by an inattentive dogwalker and end up in a wild chase through the city involving animal control and a group of anti-human animals living in the sewer. They end up having to work together to find a way home and back to Katie.
Don’t get me wrong: I liked Toy Story. And this movie has its high points, too. But it’s hard not to be let down when such an original and unique concept for an animated film ends up being a slightly less impressive copy of something that came before. Will children care that it’s too similar? Of course not. This is a perfect film for kids – plenty of poop jokes, fun animals, and relate-able moments. Will adults enjoy this? Maybe well enough as the light and fun distraction it is, but I doubt this is a movie adults will reference as a favorite animated film anytime soon.
The best bits of The Secret Life of Pets are in the small scenes of interaction we get between pets and their owners, particularly in the way owners view their pets vs. how they behave when they’re on their own (e.g the classic music loving poodle who listens to heavy metal the minute his owner leaves). And the casting is probably the film’s strongest asset: we get Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Lake Bell, and a ton of other fantastic comedians lending their voices and humor. The script and particularly the quality of the voice actors lead to some funny moments, but the movie doesn’t manage to capture that same sense of character, emotion, and nostalgia that Toy Story brought to the screen.
Overall I don’t feel strongly enough about this movie to caution anyone against it – it’s basically exactly what it looks like – but it seems likely to be forgotten over time. Unlike those minions from Despicable Me, which will likely survive and emerge from the end of the world to form a new spin off television series and another 20 films.

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