Reviewed by GREG KING
Directors: Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney
Stars: voices of Louis C K, Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell, Tara Strong, Steve Coogan, Albert Brooks, Jenny Slate, Dana Carvey, Jim Cummings.
We all love and pamper our beloved pets. But what do they secretly get up to when we are not home? That is the clever and intriguing premise behind this animated feature from director Chris Renaud, the guy behind the Despicable Me franchise and those lovable Minions. But in looking at what domestic pets get up to while their owners are away from home, the film also borrows the basic template of the classic Toy Story.
In the clever opening scenes we are introduced to a number of pets and see what they get up to when their owners head off to work for the day and they lead their own lives. These early scenes introduce us to the main characters and set the scene effortlessly. We are quickly immersed into this world of the pets. Chloe (voiced by Lake Bell) is an overweight and oversized cat that swats aside its bowl of unappetising cat food and spends much of its time deciding whether or not to eat the roast chicken in the fridge. Sweetpea (voiced by Tara Strong) is a budgerigar that turns on the fan and flies around in front of nature documentaries on the television. Leonard, a pampered poodle, listens to rock music at full volume. And the pets party and discuss their owners and their foibles.
The central character here though is Max (voiced by comic Louis C K), a cute Jack Russell terrier who lives in an apartment with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper, from the US version of The Office, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, etc). But Max’s life is turned upside down when Ellie brings home another stray dog in the form of the shaggy Newfoundland Massiff named Duke (voiced by Modern Family‘s Eric Stonestreet). Duke has no social skills whatsoever and quickly moves in on Max’s territory, taking over the apartment.
One afternoon while out with the regular dog walker, Duke seizes his chance to oust Max altogether. But an encounter with a group of feral cats leads to the pair being caught by some over zealous dog catchers and thrown into the back of a wagon. On the way to the pound though they are rescued by Snowball (voiced by Kevin Hart), a fluffy but vicious, psychopathic bunny rabbit who is assembling his own army of abandoned pets in the sewers beneath the city. Suddenly Max and Duke need to bury their hostility and work together to escape the clutches of Snowball and his bunch of feral animals.
The opening scenes turn the cuteness and charm factor up to eleven. But unfortunately what starts off so promisingly ends up becoming just another formulaic and cliched urban adventure movie and the film loses some of its initial charm. It loses much of its credibility with a loud and chaotic sequence featuring animals driving vehicles through the streets of New York in a frantic car chase.
Nonetheless the animation is flawless and very colourful, and I loved its animated impression of a bustling New York City. Renaud has also assembled a strong vocal cast that includes Steve Coogan, Albert Brooks, Jenny Slate, Dana Carvey, and veteran voice actor Jim Cummings. I have always found Hart to be an annoying presence on screen, and even here he is still annoying and hyper manic as Snowball.
Making his feature film directorial debut here is co-director Yarrow Cheney, a former production designer who has collaborated with Renaud on his films. The Secret Life Of Pets is littered with numerous clever sly references to Renaud’s other animated films, which the eagle eyed viewer will easily spot.
The Secret Life Of Pets also screens with a wonderful bonus short film entitled Mower Minions. Those hapless little minions want to earn some pocket money to buy a whizzbang new kitchen appliance, so they borrow some lawn maintenance equipment and set out to look after the garden of an elderly persons’ residence. But of course things go disastrously wrong for the cheeky minions. Don’t miss it!