In a year where animals have ruled the animated box office with Zootropolis and Finding Dory continuing to make money, comes another animated movie about furry friends that looks to do more of the same: Illuminations’ The Secret Life of Pets. Now most animated studios struggle to compete with the likes of Disney and Pixar, but that’s never stopped Illumination from trying. Despite always having a lower budget than their big studio counterparts, they achieved amazing returns with the likes of Despicable Me and The Minions, and the same has followed with The Secret Life of Pets.

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The secret to the film’s success is certainly no secret though, as the same charm which made the Minions a worldwide phenomenon continues with the new characters they have set up in this movie. Their films do not have the emotional depth or masterful storytelling that you will find in a Pixar film, but what they has going for them is fun, loads and loads of fun. And The Secret Life of Pets definitely lives up to the studio’s reputation. 

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The story follows the lives of a few pets in downtown New York and what they get up to while their beloved masters are away. The centre of the film is that of Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), a Jack Russel terrier who has a very close bond with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper), which gets threatened when she brings home a new dog Duke (Eric Stonestreet) to live with them. The two end up not getting along so well at first and in an effort to try and eliminate the other and have Katie’s affections all to their own, land up on a crazy adventure where they now need to work together with a host of other oddballs characters to make it back home. During their adventure they also come across a group of animals who are less enamored by human owners and want to bring about their downfall. However, while the film has its protagonists and antagonists (chiefly Snowball, voiced by Kevin Hart), even the bad guys have good traits that make them likeable and arguably, even more laughable.

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A lot of the charm of this film is in how the movie gets so many of the mannerisms and characteristics of the different pets right. If you’re a pet owner/lover, you’ll find an instantly relatable charm to how the different animals behave both in and out of the presence of their owners. The film builds a significant amount of personality in a short space of time with each main character, which is a good thing considering that there is quite a roster to get familiar with.

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Sadly, the script and character development goes downhill the further the pets get themselves stuck into even more unlikely solutions as the plot loses its head a bit with far-fetched sequences. While the story does set up a lot of really fun and engaging moments, you can’t help but feel if the writers had just held back and tried to not make their big set pieces so elaborate, the film would’ve probably been even more rewarding. The film is best when it’s imitating life and not when it’s got pets doing crazy things like trying to drive cars. The film also throws perhaps a few too many characters at you that prevent you from getting drawn to its characters too closely.

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However despite these unfortunate flaws, The Secret Life of Pets never loses its charm and the humour remains sharp and witty throughout. And while the movie does a solid job in catering to both adults and children alike, this films is probably a little more directed towards the younger market.

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Directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney place a lot of emphasis on set pieces, interspersed by fast moving action pieces, which while driving the plot, are largely used to set up the next big set piece which then deliver the big comedy. It’s not the most perfect narrative approach for a film, but it works well and keeps the film simple and light-hearted, with that emphasis on fun. There is little sentimentality evident in this film.

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As for technical aspects like the quality of the animation, it’s not going to win any awards for technical achievements and while bright and colorful, there is nothing groundbreaking here. But, whoever goes to watch films to see groundbreaking visual design? Kids most certainly do not. And the same goes for the films score, relying more on contemporary modern hits than creating a new, unique and powerful score. These things will probably only make the film more relatable to audiences and add to its charm.

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So, in the end, you’re not going to find The Secret Life of Pets the most amazing film presented here. But it’s one that is certainly fun and which kids especially will love. What it lacks in depth, it makes up for in charm. There is no secret formula at work here, this is a by the numbers animated film. But when it’s this much fun, there is nothing wrong with that.

Last Updated: September 27, 2016

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Craig Risi

A man of many talents, but no sense how to use them. I could be discovering the cure for aids or finding ways to achieve world peace, but I'd rather be watching movies and writing here instead.

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