That simple question propelled Toy Story, the very first full-length computer animated film, to extraordinary success in 1995. The film kick-started one of the greatest film trilogies of all time and created a merchandising bonanza for Disney and Pixar. For their latest animated feature, the Universal-housed Illumination Entertainment has taken that same basic template and applied it to our lovable pets. And so far, it's been working out pretty good for them- after all, The Secret Life of Pets has grossed a staggering $260.9 million, bolstered by the sixth $100 million + opening of 2016. But with a great marketing campaign, a strong hook, and universal interest, this film was always going to be a massive hit. The real question is quality, and thankfully, Pets emerges as the strongest film from Illumination since 2010's Despicable Me.
Well, I do feel like this has to come with one reservation- The Secret Life of Pets pales in comparison to Toy Story. The two films don't even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath, nor does Illumination come close to matching the consistency and quality of Pixar. Nonetheless, if you get those comparisons and expectations out of your mind right off the bat, this is a fast, funny, and endlessly clever animated movie that parents and kids alike will enjoy. It's definitely a riff on Toy Story, but it's exceptionally well done, colorfully designed and brilliantly animated, with an exceptional voice cast. In a summer riddled with letdowns, The Secret Life of Pets helps the animated genre continue its hot streak.
Set in a colorful, wacky version of New York City, The Secret Life of Pets focuses on the life of Max (Louis C.K.), a cute little dog who happily lives his life with his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). Max's life is pretty much perfect until one day that changes everything. Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a big, goofy stray who immediately becomes Max's rival. The two fight over territory and attention from Katie, and it's clear that they really dislike each other. After trying to trick each other into being lost in New York City, Max and Duke end up being stranded in the city on their own, with only the help of an underground ring of animals who are leading the fight against domestication.
On the other side of town, the other animals at Katie's apartment begin to notice that Max and Duke have suddenly disappeared. Led by Gidget (Jenny Slate), a dog who is madly and obviously in love with Max, a team of animals (Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Bobby Moynihan, Hannibal Buress, Chris Renaud, and more) will assemble to find their friend. Along the way, they'll have to face off against the crazy gang of rejected animals, led by the ferociously violent Snowball (Kevin Hart), survive a series of impossibly dangerous feats, dodge the insanity of New York City rush hour, and keep away from animal control. But along the way, Max, Duke, and their friends might just find out a little bit more about themselves as well.
The Secret Life of Pets comes in at a zippy 86 minutes, which is perfect for this film. It's light on story, but high on charm, breezing through its action with a zany sense of energy and a sly intelligence that keeps everyone entertained. Directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney have a great sense of comedic timing, and they manage to keep the proceedings air-tight. Secret Life of Pets hits all the right beats over the course of its short runtime, which keeps the film from ever losing the easily-bored kids in the audience. It has the same feeling of carefully tuned insanity that was deeply felt in Pixar's Finding Dory, and that pairing of character work, high-concept hilarity, and a deft comedic touch continues to be a highly effective formula for animation studios. Wild animated action runs the risk of feeling like ADD sensory overload, but in the hands of clever filmmakers, it emerges as dazzling fun.
Renaud and Cheney have the benefit of an extremely talented voice cast, uniting a wide range of comedians and actors who all do great work. Louis C.K. brings the right amount of likability to Max, but there are hints of his traditional sourness, which can be exceptionally funny. Eric Stonestreet complements him well with a dopey, deeply sweet voice performance. There's a scene between C.K. and Stonestreet that feels like it was ripped right out of Planes, Trains, & Automobiles, and ultimately, Secret Life of Pets works well as an animated twist on that story. Jenny Slate is really terrific as Gidget, Dana Carvey and Albert Brooks seem to be having a lot of fun, and Kevin Hart pretty much steals the movie at times, generating the loudest and biggest laughs of the movie.
At its core, The Secret Life of Pets is a remarkably fun blend of heart, humor, and likable characters. That's usually what animated movies rely on, and in the case of this flick, it's simply really well done. Renaud and Cheney know that they have a spectacular concept on their hands (isn't it kind of ridiculous that nobody has made this movie before?), and they pretty much let the story flow from that idea. There are no big attempts to tell a complicated narrative, and the characters evolve and change naturally over the course of the film. The animation is bright and bubbly, the script is fast and endlessly witty, and although the "tug on the heartstrings" moments are a tad bit obvious, they still work really well.
Basically, The Secret Life of Pets is a rock solid animated film. It's pretty much everything that you could have ever asked this film to be- it's cute, it's funny, it'll please kids and adults, and it's short. With their first journey into true Pixar territory, Illumination has made their best film since Despicable Me, a delightful journey that reminded me of how much potential the studio still has. Illumination was a revelation in 2010. Now, they're finding their groove. If they can keep making films that are as fun as this, we might just have a three way race for the best animated studio in Hollywood. The Secret Life of Pets is obviously another entry in the win column at the box office for the studio, but this time out, they also have a pretty great film on their hands.
THE FINAL GRADE: B+ (7.7/10)
Image Credits: Variety, Guardian, NY Times, Joblo