Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, and Kevin Hart lend their voice talents to this action/adventure comedy taking a hilarious look into the lives of Pets. Set in a Manhattan apartment building, pets gather to start their day as the two-legged residents head for work and school. The head hound is a quick-witted terrier rescue, whose position at the epicenter of his master's universe is suddenly threatened when she comes home with Duke, a sloppy mongrel with no polish. The two soon find themselves on the mean streets of New York, where they meet the adorable white bunny Snowball. It turns out that Snowball is the leader of an army of pets that were abandoned and are determined to get back at humanity and every owner-loving pet. The dogs must thwart this plot and make it back in time for dinner.
It's entirely possible – likely even – that the brains behind the 'Despicable Me' franchise didn't set out to create a 'Toy Story' clone, but that's essentially what happened with 'The Secret Life of Pets.' It's not only the premise (what do animals do when people aren't around?) that mirrors the secret sentient toy idea, but it's the entire structure of the plot. 'The Secret Life of Pets' is virtually the Woody and Buzz tale in dog form.
Max (Louis C.K.) is a happy dog. He reveres his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). They get along great. They do everything together. Then, one day it all changes. Max's idyllic life is upended by a new house guest. Katie brings home a rescue from the pound. A large hairy dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Max feels threatened by Katie's new pet, becomes jealous…and stop me if you've heard this before.
A remix of the same basic plot for 'Toy Story' wouldn't be that big of a deal if 'The Secret Life of Pets' had anything new to add. Sadly, this movie, which is overrun with forgettable characters, never harnesses even the slightest hint of 'Toy Story'-esque emotion.
The whole relationship between Max and Duke never approaches genuine feeling. Instead it relies on predictable dramatic beats to keep it going. Even then the conflict between the two never feels all that terribly important to begin with. Subsequently, this provides for less than satisfying conflict resolution.
At one point during their misadventures Max and Duke meet a homicidal bunny who fantasizes about a world in which pets kill their owners. The bunny, who is ironically given the cute name of Snowball (Kevin Hart) leads a band of unwanted pets on a crusade against humankind. Snowball curiously looks exactly like the bunny from Pixar's short film 'Presto.' Another coincidence, I'm sure. The problem with Snowball though, is that he isn't given any nuance to make him interesting. It's simply supposed to be funny that he's cute and fluffy and also wants to kill everyone. Kind of like that old visual gag where the biggest, scariest guy in the gang is named Tiny. Ha, ha, right?
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about 'The Secret Life of Pets' is that it attempts to tell a straightforward story. It would've almost been better off continuing on the same route the movie's marketing took and strung together various vignettes of jokes about pets at home alone. Like a modernized version of Aardman Animation's 'Creature Comforts' series. At least then the filmmakers wouldn't feel tied down to a recognizable story structure.
Every one of the funny pet-home-alone asides we do get to see have already been played ad nauseam on the trailers. None of them are new and witty, so instantly the movie's best jokes are old.
Like 'Minions,' 'The Secret Life of Pets' thinks it can coast by on superficiality. This might be something that passes by the younger crowd – although to be fair many of the kids in my screening appeared bored and restless – but, it'll likely bum out other viewers.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a 2-disc set provided by Universal. There is a 50GB Blu-ray along with a DVD copy. A Digital Copy code is included. The discs are packed in a standard keepcase and slipcover.
Universal's 1080p video presentation is everything you'd expect a recently released CGI animated feature to look like; pretty much, perfect. It's a bright, colorful, and clean.
Whether or not you dig Illumination's animation style is moot. The proceedings are as demo-worthy as they come. An initial shot of downtown Manhattan, including the fall colors of Central Park, looks quite stunning. There isn't a hint of aliasing or banding in that sequence, which contains many potential problem areas like trees zooming by as the camera dips and sways, and buildings with countless windows. All these objects pass by without the slightest hint of distortion.
Clarity and detail are top-notch. Various types of hair and fun all have individual textures and react differently. Each strand of hair is visible. Duke's fur in particular is fun to watch as he bounces around. Color is extraordinary. Like I mentioned above, the fall colors of Central Park are wondrously represented here. They may be oversaturated for effect, but all the various shades of fall look gorgeous in high-def. I have no complaints, whatsoever, about this video presentation.
'The Secret Life of Pets' features a Dolby Atmos track that provides a fun, exciting audio experience. As far as Atmos tracks go it isn't as completely immersive as some of its demo-worthy counterparts, but there are many aspects of this mix that will delight those who have upgraded.
The height channels, here, are used much more for ambiance than action. Still, there are a few scenes that offer up some great overhead sound. When Max and his other friends are being chased around the sewer by a killer pack of animals led by Snowball, the echoing of the stampede is clearly heard overhead. Other sounds like thunder fill in a lively ceiling soundscape.
Up front dialogue is perfectly produced. Panning effects transition smoothly. Low-end frequencies boom when they're called upon to during action scenes and car chase. Rear channels are filled with sound during chase scenes. There's also a nice scene where Max and Duke are surrounded by angry cats who tower over them on clothes lines. Basically, a dome of hisses and angry meows are heard in every direction.
The Humans That Brought You 'Pets' (HD, 9 min.) – A few short interviews with directors Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud. Also interviewed are writer Brian Lynch and producers Janet Healy and Chris Meledandri.
Animals Can Talk: Meet the Actors (HD, 4 min.) – A short look behind the scenes of the actors doing their voice work.
All About the Pets (HD, 6 min.) – Voice actors Eric Stonestreet and Kevin Hart are joined by an animal trainer to do a promo fluff piece as they interact with some animals.
Hairstylist to the Dogs (HD, 4 min.) – Stonestreet talks to pet stylist Jess Rona for some pet styling tricks and tips.
The Best of Snowball (HD, 1 min.) – Because apparently people find him funnier than I found him. Here's a Snowball-specific featurette.
Lyric Video (HD, 2 min.) – The song “Lovely Day” plays while scenes from the movie are shown.
Hot Dog Sing-Along (HD, 1 min.) – A short sing-along.
Fandango Brian and the Minions on 'Pets' (HD, 3 min.) – There are three parts to this where the Minions watch the movie like the 'MST3K' guys do.
GoPro 'The Secret Life of Pets' (HD, 2 min.) – A commercial for GoPro cameras intertwined with scenes from the movie.
Mini-Movies (HD, 20 min.) There are three mini-movies included here: “NormanTV,” “Weenie,” and “Mower Minions.” A making-of featurette focused on the mini-movies, is also included.
'The Secret Life of Pets' is passable as an electronic babysitter. It's resemblance to a shallow version of 'Toy Story' doesn't help matters. Like so many of Illumination's properties, 'The Secret Life of Pets' relies heavily on current pop-culture references that are instantly dated. The video is great, the Dolby Atmos track is one to add to your collection. It's worth a look for those reasons.