A couple of months ago, NBC Universal announced it was acquiring Dreamworks Animation. It’s a medium historically controlled by Disney, and Disney’s merger with Pixar ensured it’ll remain at the top for the foreseeable future. Dreamworks, though, had carved out a strong position of its own thanks to its franchises of Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar, and How to Train Your Dragon. Universal already has its own animation division, Illumination Entertainment, and while the head of Dreamworks Animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg, will remain with the company, the day-to-day running of the studio will be under the control of the head of Illumination, Chris Meledandri. Meledandri had been head of 20th Century Fox Animation, where Ice Age, Horton Hears a Who, and Alvin and the Chipmunks were made under his watch. He moved to Universal to run Illumination in 2007; its main hits have been the Despicable Me/Minions movies, though through over-exposure that series has pretty much run its course. Because of it, kids now don’t like yellow. Illumination needed to set off in a different direction, and the studio’s new film The Secret Life of Pets does that. However, it’s a direction that’s been explored before.
The movie focuses on Max (Louis C.K.) and his owner/soul mate Katie (Ellie Kemper). Max’s friends are the cat Chloe (Lake Bell), the friendly girl dog Gidget (Jenny Slate), the sarcastic dachshund Buddy (Hannibal Burress) and the pug Mel (Bobby Moynihan). However, Max’s world gets turned upside down with the arrival of Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a huge mop of brown hair who threatens Max’s relationship with Katie.
The conflict between the two ends up casting them adrift in the city where they run into a gang of discarded pets led by a magician’s former rabbit (Kevin Hart). Realizing Max is lost, Gidget mobilizes his friends and others, including a falcon name Tiberius (Albert Brooks) and an older dog named Pops (Dana Carvey).
The screenplay by Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch, who’d worked together on the Minions movie, is at its best during the opening snippets that introduce the animals: Buddy using a mixer as a backscratcher, Chloe trying – unsuccessfully – to resist eating a cooked turkey, a poodle with a love of heavy metal music. (See the trailer below) After that the story loses energy and wit and becomes predictable. Tiberius and Pops bump the energy back up temporarily, but they’re brief respites.
When Max and Duke first enter the lair of the discarded pets, it may be a bit too intense for younger children, especially a sequence involving a huge snake. The scene ends with what seems to be a paean to the Roadrunner/Wyle E. Coyote cartoons, though without the comic timing of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons. Later there’s a dream sequence in a hot dog factory that’s both bizarre and unnecessary.
The Secret Life of Pets tries to follow the path of another trilogy of films that looked at a secret life, though those movies involved toys. But Pets mistakes sentiment for real emotion. It will give you some “ah” moments, but it doesn’t go any deeper than that. Think of it as Toy Story lite.
Pets did knock Pixar’s Finding Dory out of the top spot in the box office, though it had been there for a couple of weeks and has already grossed over $400 million in the US so far. While Pets received a decent 74% on Rotten Tomatoes, Dory hit a stellar 95%. Based on Pets, I don’t think Disney/Pixar has any need to worry about Illumination/Dreamworks any time soon.