Illumination Entertainment makes bad movies. They’re 2nd-rate DreamWorks Animation. They made their name with the Despicable Me movies; films that in turn made their name with yellow beans that wear goggles and speak French gibberish. They’re not the at the top of the heap when it comes to animated family films, and nothing has changed with their latest misfire, The Secret Life of Pets. The premise should be a slam-dunk, and it’s not like there’s any shortage of goodwill for adorable animals (animated or otherwise), but instead it comes off like a reheated remake of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 minus Pixar’s cleverness and warmth.
Max (Louis C.K.) is the beloved dog of Katie (Ellie Kemper). Their life together is perfect until she brings home the big stray, Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Feeling like his life is getting usurped and his relationship with Katie jeopardized, Max tries to get Duke picked up by animal control, a plot that ends up getting them both jailed and separated from their owner. The duo must learn to become friends in order to escape from the clutches to the resentful “flushed” pets, led by angry bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart), and make their way back home to Katie. Meanwhile, Max’s friend Gidget (Jenny Slate) rounds up a group of fellow pets to try and rescue him.
At some point in the process of making The Secret Life of Pets, I wonder if someone during the production piped up and said, “Hey, um, folks? I think we’re just mashing up the plots of Toy Story and Toy Story 2, two wildly popular movies. Isn’t our concept strong enough to do something different?” This person was then likely summarily fired, and the staff of The Secret Life of Pets went on their way being intermittently clever with jokes about animal behavior while aping far superior pictures.
Part of the problem is that Max and Duke, beyond being dogs and dogs’ inherently likability, aren’t particularly endearing characters. The movie doesn’t spend a lot of time developing their personalities before it tosses them out, and that makes their friendship come more from mutual survival rather than something rooted in character. Max and Duke both come off as kind of selfish, and you have a serious problem when you’ve failed to nail the central dynamic between the two lead characters. It would have been one thing if they both came from a sympathetic place, but Illumination doesn’t think that kind of stuff through. Instead, Max tries to frame Duke for wrecking the living room; Duke steals Max’s blanket, and they’re both kind of bad dogs.
Additionally, the movie is far too enamored with the one-note joke of Snowball’s character. Here’s Snowball in a nutshell: it’s an adorable bunny but he’s angry and homicidal. The end. The movie thinks it’s getting far more mileage out of that juxtaposition than it actually is because it’s so painfully obvious. He’s cute but he’s dangerous! Hilarious!
There’s no reason for The Secret Life of Pets to be as lazy as it is. It has a strong premise—how do animals behave when we’re not looking—which is a prime opportunity to anthropomorphize and lampoon animal behavior. You need look no further than the Internet to see pets behaving in humorous ways, and yet Secret Life only occasionally hits the mark. It’s a film that should be much more joyous and even a little strange, but instead it usually goes for the laziest, most obvious path possible.
But that’s Illumination Entertainment for you. They come up with something moderately amusing and then drive it into the ground (e.g. aforementioned Minions). And yet they’re wildly successful because audiences aren’t asking for anything more. That’s a shame because there are better family movies out there. You can go see them right now. Don’t roll over for something like The Secret Life of Pets.