Entire family: Yes
2016, 87 min., Color
Rated PG for action and some rude humor
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Atmos Dolby TrueHD
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
What is the highest grossing original animated film NOT produced by Pixar or Disney?
The Secret Life of Pets, which played theaters in 3D and grossed $872 million worldwide. The 2016 Illumination/Universal film offers offers a fun take on that age-old question pet owners ponder: What does the family cat, dog, or other pet do all day while the family is away at work or school? The opening sequences are so spot-on that every pet owner will smile in recognition, and the animation brings it all to life in fun fashion.
But then someone at a storyboard session must have said, “Wait, we can’t just show a day of contained cuteness. We have to up the ante,” and that’s when a concept as original as Disney’s Inside Out quickly lapses into shrill familiarity. I don’t blame directors Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud for trying to add a dramatic plot element, because even the most easily charmed pet-lovers would start to wonder Is this it? if those opening sequences were to continue much longer. But I could have done without crazed former pets commandeering a bus or taxi (we don’t know how) and driving them (we still don’t know how) crazily across New York City, or an animal onslaught on the human world that’s about as over-the-top as it gets (more on that later).
Still, The Secret Life of Pets has a lot going for it, starting with the gorgeous animation and brightly colored backdrops of New York. It stars Louis C.K. as the voice of Max, a Jack Russell Terrier whose bond with his owner is threatened when she brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a huge, clumsy canine version of Sesame Street’s hairy Muppet, Snuffleupagus. Just when you think that faux sibling rivalry or displacement anxiety will be the main driving force behind a so-far gentle plot, a dog-walker takes the apartment pooches to the park and gets distracted. Trying to ditch each other, Duke and Max venture off on their own, encounter a huge gang of alley cats, and are caught by animal control. But when a bulldog in that same wagon is “busted out” by a gang of abandoned former pets living in the sewers (apparently it’s not just alligators down there), that’s when it gets more crazy and less inspired. That’s when younger viewers will cheer and laugh and older ones may wish they had toned it down a bit.
We’ve seen a subterranean sewer world already in Flushed Away, but animators have made great strides since then and the water sequences especially are impressive in this film. The sewer characters, not so much. It’s more than a little jarring to have a tough-talking rabbit named Snowball lead the Flushed Pets gang that lives underground, and even more of a head-snapper when you consider that a giant snake (which eats rodents and rabbits) be under his command. Kevin Hart is his old manic self as the voice of the bunny, but his shrill craziness is met pound-for-pound by Jenny Slate, who gives voice to Gidget, a fluffy white Pomeranian who has a crush on Max and is determined to save him. Those two characters and a rooftop pet hawk named Tiberius (Albert Brooks) are so familiar that it’s almost a relief to encounter Pops (Dana Carvey), an old basset hound whose gimpy hind legs are supported by wheels that help him to get around.
Above ground there are enough characters here for everyone to have their favorites, whether it’s a fat cat named Chloe (Lake Bell), a dachshund that reminds you of a slinky (Hannibal Buress), a teeny-tiny parakeet named Sweetpea (Tara Strong), a perpetually lost guinea pig named Norman (Chris Renaud), a Chihuahua named Peanut (Brian T. Delaney), or Mel (Bobby Moynihan), the pug who’s so hyper that he keeps knocking things over.
Take away the over-the-top sequences and you’d probably have a tamer feature that wouldn’t engage the children as much; add them and the adults roll their eyes. But at least the adults can appreciate the superbly animated action sequences, along with those pet-owner touchstones. That makes it a satisfying movie for everyone and a good choice for family movie night, with plenty of replay potential.
If you have 3D capability, go for it, but know that there’s still plenty of pop and wow-factor in the standard 2D Blu-ray too, especially with a robust Atmos Dolby TrueHD rocking the house.