The animators at Illumination Entertainment have taken a break from their anarchic Minions to show us The Secret Life of Pets. It’s a far more conventional and predictable kids’ movie, operating from the shameless question, “What if Toy Story, but with pets?” It wouldn’t surprise me if writers Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, and Brian Lynch had a plaque over their desks saying, “What would Pixar do?” Their movie is about an overconfident little guy who feels threatened when his owner brings home a new buddy. Feelings of jealousy lead him to try to get rid of this intruder and return to being the leading recipient of his owner’s affections. Unfortunately, his attempts to do so leave him lost far from home, with only his new nemesis for company. A group of pals left behind try to figure out how to save these two, while a group of misfits the mismatched pair encounter on their journey home start out menacing before revealing themselves as cuddly help. Along the way there’s a dollop of sentimental backstory and by the end there’s a big scrambling chase after a truck. Sounds familiar?
There was barely a moment of this movie where I wasn’t reminded of Toy Story, except for the climax, which has a little more in common with the end of Finding Dory. Chalk that up to bad timing more than copying, I suppose. The problem with playing the Pixar formula – especially when the originators themselves are reaching the limits of its potential – is that Illumination is no Pixar. They’re trying to be something they aren’t. They have nothing of their inspiration’s deep thought-through approach to imagined worlds and none of the cleverness of premise. Pets is a pretty easy and lazy display of the simplest possible imagination. There’s a secret society of pets under their owner’s noses, a reasonable enough picture-book assumption. What does that entail? Well, in this New York City apartment building it means the animals roam the halls and end up partying and hanging out together all day before the people return at night. They play it safe, content with their lot in life. There’s no great community built up, just a bunch of animals sitting around.
The lead dog is Max (Louis C.K.). He’s jealous of a big new dog (Eric Stonestreet) his owner (Ellie Kemper) brings home. Their neighbors include a fluffy white dog (Jenny Slate), a surly cat (Lake Bell), two more dogs (Hannibal Buress and Bobby Moynihan), and a falcon (Albert Brooks). I’d tell you more about who these characters are, but they’re not much. Relying entirely on what little personality the famous voices can filter through, they’re bouncy bright cartoony critters with little in the way of interior lives and only the simplest one-note motivations. It’d be fine if there weren’t so little else to pay attention to. The movie’s best creation is a sewer gang of discarded animals who call themselves The Flushed Pets and plot to hurt humans. A rough bunny voiced by Kevin Hart leads them. Unfortunately the rigidly deterministic message of the movie softens them – after a lengthy bus crash sequence in which surely several people die – saying all counterculture revolutionaries secretly want to learn their proper place in the world and be happy with that. It’s nothing if not a settling-for-the-status-quo downer.
At least co-directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney keep the look colorful and cuddly, and the voice work does sell a funny line here and there. It’s best in an early sequence setting up the daily routine of pets. This gives the chance for animators to get funny gags out of their characters identifiable animals behaviors next to anthropomorphized emotions. Max whines about his owner leaving only to snap into a tail-wagging leap when he hears the click of a door. That’s nice. Later, though, the movie grinds through predictable paces, scurrying here and there, engaging in predictable pratfalls, cartoon violence and vertigo, and growing thinner all the while. It’s best when unexpected, like a hallucinogenic hunger dream in which hot dogs sing “We Go Together.” Moments like that are rare. It feels mechanical and routine. Ho-hum, just another technically competent computer animated comedy with celebrity voices on an adventure learning to appreciate what they have and whatnot. It’s programmed to hit the right beats, but not for intelligence or heart. At least it’s watchable and not downright hateful like The Angry Birds Movie. It’s just mindless. Why have such low expectations for what’s going in kid’s minds?