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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Blu-ray Review: #TheSecretLifeOfPets

The gorgeous-looking The Secret Life of Pets feels strangely familiar, but is 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. The home release sports excellent video, audio, and a near-perfect set of extras, minus no director commentary.

The Movie - 4/5
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.

The Video - 5/5
The Secret Life of Pets is beautifully presented by Universal Studios' Illumination Entertainment as perhaps one of the best transfers of the year. The MPEG-4/AVC transfer is as gorgeous as anything you'll see in an animated film, and it's filled with many elements that make it a standout effort. Like many animated films, color is saturated but never distracts from the experience, revealing sharp details in clothing, fur, and various man-made structures. You can see individual hairs on Max, worn elements throughout the city's streets, and even distressed wrinkles in the humans' clothing. There's also depth to this image that even our 2D pack revealed, which I'm sure would be accentuated on a 3D platform. There are inky lines on our characters, with blacks and shadows playing very well. Sometimes animated films reveal crush especially during night scenes, but not here. We're gifted with a crisp transfer that reveals just how far Universal's animated division has grown since the first Despicable Me film. This one is a triumph on every level.

The Audio - 4/5
The Secret Life of Pets barks and growls with an impressive Dolby Atmos soundfield that translates quite well into our 5.1 set up. There's not many of these titles around yet, so it's good to see that Universal is prepared to make the transition with us. Dialogue is pushed through the center channel, delivering crystal-clear results. Other audio aspects (such as sound effects, music, and environmentals) arrive in the forward speakers, richly defining this world. Surrounds are also busy processing city noise and other effects, but most of this story is told indoors, so there's not a tremendous amount of opportunity for them to shine. The LFE thumps quite a bit in city scenes, but it's not quite as involved as I would have liked. But when it gets involved, the sound is big and boisterous. Overall, it's a perfectly-polished product that should play well on any sound system.

The Supplements - 4/5
Although The Secret Life of Pets is lacking a director's commentary, but the rest offer a wide variety of enjoyable extras, all of which are offered in HD. Our summaries were taken from the packaging and do not reflect our opinions:
  • How to Make an Animated Film – A behind-the-scenes look at how to make an animated film from the various departments that make up Illumination.
  • Anatomy of a Scene – Filmmakers and animators take us through the multi-step process it takes to create a specific scene in the Secret Life of Pets
  • 3 Mini-Movies: Norman Television, Weenie, and Mower Minions
  • All About The Pets – Kevin Hart and Eric Stonestreet, with the help of animal trainer Molly Mignon O'Neill take you on an educational journey to learn more about your average and not-so average, household pets.
  • Animals Can Talk: Meet The Actors – The comedy superstars who give voice to the film's menagerie of characters talk about their roles and the process of bringing them to life.
  • Hairstylist To The Dogs – Inspired by "Hairspray Live!," Eric Stonestreet, with the help of a professional dog groomer Jess Rona, will take you through the basic steps to help your pups look as awesome as possible when they're hanging out with their pet pals.
  • The Best Of Snowball – A rapid-fire, fun and oddly musical mash-up of all the best Snowball one-liners
  • Hot Dog Sing-Along – Join Max and Duke as they perform for their dinner in the sausage factory. This straightforward sing along is fun for the whole family to enjoy.
  • Sing Trailer
  • "Lovely Day" Lyric Video
  • The Humans that Brought You Pets – Producers Chris Meledandri and Janet Healy, directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney, and writer Brian Lynch discuss what went into creating The Secret Life of Pet's compelling characters and non-stop action.
  • GoPro®: The Secret Life of Pets
  • The Making of the Mini-Movies – A fun and interesting take on the Making of the Mini-Movies – we'll explore the themes of each of the mini-movies through the eyes of the artists who made them.

  • Our evaluation copy arrived as a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack. The presence of a slipcase is appreciated, as is the voucher for a UV/iTunes Digital Copy. At the time of this post, Target offered a steelbook and Walmart a set of character clasps. Neither of these contained additional special features.

    The Bottom Line - 4/5
    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 4K. 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. Video and audio are outstanding, and the supplements (sans commentary) are top shelf. 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. Recommended

    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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