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Movie Review: #TheSecretLifeOfPets

The Secret Life of Pets is strangely familiar, but entirely adorable.

Review by Matt Cummings

As a pet owner and failed foster parent to three kittens (my wife and I actually kept all three), it goes without saying that my curiosity in The Secret Life of Pets went far above the cinematography, the animation, or really anything else. I just wanted to see what pets do - and think about - while their overlord oppressor goes to work. And while strangely familiar to the original Toy Story, this one more than makes up for it in cuteness and spectacular animation.

Among the hustle and bustle of New York City, the pets who reside with their owners are supposed to live docile, predictable lives: eat and sleep, repeat as necessary. But for Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), he's the king of his domain and apartment complex. He meets with a menagerie of other pets, including fat cat Katie (voiced by Ellie Kemper), and the Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate), who enjoys Spanish tele-novellas and harbors a secret love for Max. But when Max's owner introduces the older dog Duke (voiced by Eric Stonestreet), it disrupts the balance in the house. Soon, the two are fighting for space and attention, destroying the apartment in the process. The two muts are eventually forced to work together after being collected by the NY City Pound, and uncover an underground world of downright ugly critters who are led by the violent rabbit Snowball (voiced by Kevin Hart). He's out to destroy the pet-owner caste system, while other freakish animals do his bidding his minions. On the run and initially without their friends, Max and Duke learn to put aside their differences, while Duke is forced to accept a devastating truth.

If the plot behind The Secret Life of Pets sounds familiar, it should: it's Toy Story all over again, with the perfect world of Woody disrupted by Buzz Lightyear, and the two become lost and must work together. But it's certainly the most polished of Illumination Entertainment's films so far, and the rehash plays off quite well because of its subjects. We come to quickly love these pets as they rock out at a lavish party, swing from the drapes, and ultimately band together to get Max and Duke back home. We typically anthropomorphize our pets, and that plays so well into Director Chris Renaud's feature. But it also emphasizes a different world, the seedy sewers that are dominated by pets who've been abandoned by unfit owners. It's a reality that Max and the others have difficulty understanding, a fact which happily gets somewhat resolved by film's end.

But it's not a grandslam homerun either. The ever-growing list of searchers includes the red-tailed hawk Tiberius (Albert Brooks) and the half-paralyzed Bassett Hound Pops (Dana Carvey), none of whom ever are really flushed out. They're odd, funny, and that's about it. Perhaps that's because Renaud is planning to make a series of these, a fact that our test audience would most likely support (me included). There's also the stunning plot rip-off that never really amounts to much, and even the reveal at the beginning of the third act lacks emotional resonance. Slate and Brooks are clearly the best here, their voices creating memorable characters instead of the animation being forced to do it for them. It's not that CK and Stonestreet are bad, but they just don't have the chops yet to pull off these roles. And while it would be easy to blame Illumination for doing its best Pixar, one has to admit they're getting close to cinematic perfection. They just need more time.

I really enjoyed Composer Alexander Desplat's Gershwin-esque score, which really helped to set the tone for the film. The animation is also stunning and should look great in 3D. But on the negative side, there is an absolutely forgettable short film of The Minions prior to the film's opening - it really is awful, and not even funny for what should be easy Minions pickings. The Secret Life of Pets is better than 2015's Minions, more original than Finding Dory, and sweeter than Zootopia. Its Toy Story plot might see it lose at next year's Oscars, but its cuteness and variety of characters make this an instant and satisfying hit. But I have to go now because my three mini-cats are calling. They need their lap time, and you know how upset your pets can get.

The Secret Life of Pets is rated PG for action and some rude humor and has a runtime of 91 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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