The Secret Life of Pets: Half-Hearted Plagiarism

The Secret Life of Pets

Even the actors had no idea it was this bad…

You know those movies where all the good parts are in the trailer? If they formed a society, maybe the “Society of Falsely-Advertised Movies,” The Secret Life of Pets would be a charter member. Fans of Illumination Entertainment, the animated-film company responsible for destroying millions of exasperated adults’ nerves with those yellow things, might have been hoping for another score with this animal twist on the “what the kids do when you’re not at home” narrative. Alas, the movie only goes to show just how weak a one-trick pony Illumination is. Pixar’s recent woes look tame compared to the bland, predictable one-liner marathon offered here.

The Secret Life of Pets, as the title suggests, is about…the secret life of pets. More specifically, the crazy, stupid things your adorable kitty or dog does after you run off to work every morning. In Illumination’s interpretation, they actually form a close-knit, underground society of animals that runs parallel to our own. They’ve even adopted some of our sadder habits, like stealing too much cake from the fridge or watching one too many sentimental soap operas. The plot of the movie revolves primarily around one such pet, a rather proud terrier named Max (Louis C.K.). He lives a happy, comfortable existence in New York with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper), complete with all the food, walks, and doting attention he could desire. It’s a picture-perfect life…until one fateful day, when Katie brings a large, shaggy Newfoundland named Duke (Eric Stonestreet) home from the pound.

I’m feeling lazy right now and don’t want to describe the plot further, so let’s play a game. How much of the rest can you guess?

You: Okay, does Katie start paying more attention to Duke than Max?

Me: No idea how you figured that out…

You: Does Max get jealous as a result?

Me: Whoa, where’d that idea come from?

You: And does this petty jealousy inevitably lead to trouble?

Me: (jaw drops) Wow, I never would’ve guessed that myself…

You: And…let’s see. Do they eventually come to appreciate the stupidity of their hatred and make amends?

Me: No. In fact, they remain sworn enemies for the entirety of the movie, which ends on a melancholic, tragic note of pain and discord.

You don’t even need to watch this movie to start smelling the catches. Its very premise is a stripped-down version of Toy Story, the story of supposedly-unthinking objects fighting and learning to get along that’s still keeping Pixar busy. If Illumination was hoping for a similar financial or artistic bounce, it should have taken a hard look at a more recent movie of Pixar’s, The Good Dinosaur. That movie liberally borrowed from The Lion King, Brother Bear and Brave in an attempt to squeeze money out of nostalgia. And look how that turned out for them. Did Illumination think that new hands could improve on the old pros? If they did, reality tells a different story; this movie does almost nothing to build on or justify the redoing of a story so recognizable to anyone who watches animated movies. Instead of new hands beating the oldies, it feels more like newbies lamely trying to imitate the success of their elders.

If anything, in fact, the movie regresses on Toy Story’s themes of friendship and understanding in favor of cheap jokes. Max and Duke’s rift gets magically smoothed over through a weird musical montage of talking sausages. The supposed villain, a snarky, jumpy bunny (Kevin Hart), decides midway through the movie to stop trying to kill Max for reasons never fully explained. Most of the characters, from tattooed pig to lonely hawk, have no purpose except to deliver the occasional lame quip. It’s as if the creators started feeling guilty halfway through about copying Pixar and decided to revive the formula that brought them so much dough with Minions: jam-pack the script with tiresome gag after tiresome gag after tiresome gag, then fill the rest with dull foot chases. Yes, it is a kid’s movie, and Illumination obviously wants to keep the tone light. But in its better days, Pixar showed how you could mix good humor with thoughtful stories to make an entertaining, meaningful final product. This movie, on the other hand, is just a series of tedious antics, only a tad above Minions in quality because pets, unlike yellow blobs, are actually cute to look at.

The Secret Life of Pets is a muddled attempt to be all things to all people. It tries to hit more-experienced moviegoers with a familiar story structure, but also seeks to attract the kiddies with bucket-loads of physical and verbal comedy. In the hands of a master, the balancing act might have worked. Here, it crashes to pieces. The “comedic” acts are easily forgettable, the plot a rip-off, and the combination of the two awkward, weak, and unbelievable. There’s no shortcut to making a good movie, least of all through mooching off the good ideas of others. The minions at Illumination clearly still have catching up to do.

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The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

Starring: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart, Albert Brooks, Steve Coogan

Running Time: 90 minutes

Rating: PG

Produced by: Chris Meledandri, Janet Healy

Directed by: Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney

Written by: Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio

Image of gaping dogs here.