A feature-length animation in which a favourite pet takes a dislike to a new arrival and contrives to get them both lost in an inhospitable world. Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. And, if you think not — replace the word “pet” with “toy”, then think on it some more.
Despite falling into familiarity, it’s a likable film.
The similarities to Toy Story, beyond even that initial premise, are pronounced — from the colourful characters in the group they leave behind, to the murderous villains they encounter, and even the idea their owners are unaware of their secret lives. But the set-up isn’t handled as smartly — both Max and Duke behave so poorly, it’s difficult to feel sympathy for either of them.
Max (Louis CK) is the established pet, a Jack Russell who’s lived with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) since he was a puppy. Duke (Eric Stonestreet) is the interloper — a giant Newfoundland from the pound. Max is instantly jealous, and when Duke overhears him trying to persuade Katie to stick to one animal (although all she hears is barking — he’s a dog) the two of them clash, beginning a battle of one-upmanship that escalates until they’re both collarless and in the clutches of New York’s animal control.
Enter the villains: a group of abandoned animals, the ‘Flushed Pets’, who stage an assault on the animal control van to rescue a colleague, freeing Max and Duke in the process. The duo are ingratiated into the group (on the pretence they killed their owner), but are soon discovered. They manage to escape, but become marked for death by the leader, Snowball (Kevin Hart) — a fluffy white bunny with psychotic tendencies.
Here the film falls into familiarity again — the cute character who turns out to be vicious has long since stopped being surprising. See also Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear from Toy Story 3, the Woodland Critters from South Park and, possibly the most famous, Monty Python’s Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog — also a fluffy white bunny.
Spotting the steals almost becomes a game — a subplot about Duke’s old owner, complete with flashback, plays like the When She Loved Me sequence in Toy Story 2. A dream sequence in a sausage factory recalls Homer Simpson’s time spent in the Land Of Chocolate. While an action set-piece, with a van hanging off a bridge and a character traversing the cracking windshield, is straight out of The Lost World: Jurassic Park.
What it lacks in originality, it claws back with strong visual gags and a witty script.
But, despite this, it’s a likable film, with a witty script worthy of the comedic talent providing the voices: “You may have lots of time,” wheezes Pops, an elderly Basset Hound played by Dana Carvey, urging the rescue party to hurry up. “But for me, every breath is a cliffhanger.”
There’s visual invention, too. Take the opening sequence that introduces the animal characters: it’s saturated with gags that hit their marks, such as Chloe (Lake Bell), an obese tabby cat battling with the temptation of a roast chicken in the fridge, and Sweet Pea, a budgie, turning on a fan and a big screen TV to simulate flying with fighter jets through a canyon.
While it ultimately falls short of the standards set by the likes of Zootropolis, or even co-director Chris Renaud’s Despicable Me, The Secret Life Of Pets introduces an engaging cast of characters, who could easily sustain a number of sequels. And, with the world established, there’s room for a little more innovation next time.