7 July 2016

The Secret Life of Pets review

Illumination Entertainment's first film, Despicable Me, may have instantly marked them as a company to keep an eye on, but The Secret Life of Pets is just the latest film from them that indicates their early success may have been more due to luck than judgement. Gone is all the charm and originality that made Despicable Me what it is, instead replaced by a series of barely connected scenes that add up to nothing more than a significantly less effective version of Toy Story.

We follow Max, a dog living a cushy life in New York with his owner, as he tries to deal with the addition of a new dog, Duke. Naturally they don't get on, and it isn't long before the escalating battle between them results in both of them getting lost in the middle of New York city.

Imagine if Buzz Lightyear had the same backstory in Toy Story as Jessie does in Toy Story 2. Now imagine they are both dogs instead. Congratulations, you've seen a better version of The Secret Life of Pets. In everything from basic premise to individual plot points - even down to the personalities of various side characters - The Secret Life of Pets owes a great debt to Toy Story and its sequels, cribbing liberally whenever it gets the chance. Where The Secret Life of Pets and Toy Story differ, however, is that one has a strong idea of the story it's trying to tell and the way its characters will change over the course of the film, whereas the other does nothing but repeatedly introduce new, wacky characters and set up silly situations in a futile attempt to keep the audience entertained.

It's a great example of why "and then" storytelling simply doesn't work. There is no sense of cause and effect between almost anything that happens in The Secret Life of Pets, resulting in a film that feels more like the ramblings of a child describing a particularly nonsensical dream than it does a coherent story. That all important structure is totally absent here, and without it what could have been a somewhat moving (albeit wholly unoriginal) story about a dog finding a new home fails to register on any level, never mind an emotional one.

I can already hear people saying "But Daniel, it's just a kids film!", but I honestly don't think that's a valid excuse. There is no end to the list of truly great animated films that understand how to tell a story, which makes The Secret Life of Pets' inability to do so all the more glaringly obvious. This is the same year in which the excellent Zootropolis came out, for Gods sake; there is simply no reason why films aimed at kids can't be genuinely good, and insisting that we shouldn't expect as much from either animation as an art form or children as an audience is reductive to both.

There are a few aspects of The Secret Life of Pets I enjoyed - a recurring joke involving the dead comrade of an ex-pet militia made me laugh every time, and the highly stylised Manhattan skyline is nothing short of beautiful - but they are few and far between, and do nothing to make up for a film that clearly needed several pretty major rewrites somewhere in production. None of this will stop The Secret Life of Pets from making a metric shit ton of money of course - this is, after all, an animated film about talking animals that can be advertised using Minions - but I can't see anyone, not even the most pet-loving of people, walking away from the cinema having genuinely enjoyed their time with The Secret Life of Pets. And when it comes down to it, that's the only thing that really matters.

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