THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS: A Welcome and Unexpected Surprise

***A warning to all parents:  If you don’t already have a pet, after bringing your child to THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS you should expect to be getting one.  Your kid will more than likely demand it.  The animals in this film are that awesome.***

Let’s start this review off with a simple fact: THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS was one of my least anticipated movies of the year and my expectations were low.  It comes from the studio known mostly for the DESPICABLE ME movies (which I have never been a fan of) and had an ad campaign that just didn’t appeal to me.  Fortunately, having learned in the past that the unexpected movie can sometimes rise to the occasion, I try to enter every screening with an open mind.  That being said, when I’m wrong I like to admit it.  So here it is in writing for all the readers of this review to see.  “I was wrong.”  THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS is a fun, smart, roller coaster ride that kids and adults (especially pet owning adults) will love.  A real surprise for the summer moviegoer, it offers an incredible array of characters and an increasing level of insanity that will have audiences enjoying every minute that the film has to offer.

Continue reading for more of our THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS review.

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS

For months now, the posters for THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS have been asking, “Ever wonder what your pets do when you’re not home?”  Well, that’s the first thing in the ad campaign that had me worried.  We’re getting a 90-minute movie about my cats sleeping?  How good could that be?  Thankfully, writers Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch and Cinco Paul, along with co-directors Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud are a lot more creative than I am.  Either that or they have surrounded themselves in real life with some fascinating animals that lead really interesting lives.  The film starts off with Max, a mixed-breed terrier, living happily alone with his owner Katie.  For him, life is great.  That is until Katie arrives home one night with a second dog that she has adopted from the pound, a big hairball named Duke.  When Max decides he’s not ready to share Katie’s love, the two animals find themselves at odds and the continuous back and forth ends with them lost and alone on the city streets.  Hoping to avoid both animal control and a gang of sewer-dwelling “flushed” pets led by the scene-stealing bunny Snowball, the two must navigate through the city in order to find their way home.

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Anybody who has a pet, whether it’s a dog, cat, bunny or even a pig, is going to fall in love with this film. I can almost guarantee that they’ll recognize a little bit of their own pets coming through in at least one of the many animals that THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS has to offer.  The character of Chloe (Lake Bell), a large, fat, gray cat, not only looks suspiciously like one of my own pets, Audrey, but her need to constantly cram herself into small spaces mirrors one of Audrey’s weirder traits as well.  After the film I felt like asking my wife why she hadn’t told me that our cat was in a movie this summer.  It’s this attention to detail in regards to the specific traits of certain pets as we know them that will not only help give pet owners a closer connection to the characters we meet, but also adds some real dimension to them as well.

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The first act of the film plays with the different attitudes of the pets that live in a single apartment building, as well as the notion of what they do while their owners are away.  As much fun as this is, there’s not a lot new here that wasn’t already revealed in the films trailers.  The fun really kicks into high gear as the first act leads into the second and Max and Duke find themselves making their way through the city.  As they are stalked by a band of abandoned pets, the film picks up its pace and enters into a real world of madness that helps ratchet up the level of entertainment.  The filmmakers don’t play it safe either.  There’s this insane wackiness that will keep the adults laughing out loud as we meet the very strange members of the “Flushed Pets Gang” (One is a pig (Michael Beattie) who once belonged to the owner of a tattoo parlor where the artists used him to practice tattoos on.  They eventually abandoned him when they ran out of space on the poor pigs body).  With these characters the movie moves into some dark territory.  At one point our two heroes have to make up a story about “offing” their owners in order to get on the Flushed Pets Gang’s good side.  This kind of humor may seem inappropriate at times for a kid’s film, but for teens and adults it really elevates the comedy to a new level making PETS a much funnier and more enjoyable experience.

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The voice-over performances are all good here as well.  Louis C.K. does a great job giving Max a likable quality while Eric Stonestreet does the same with Duke.  Their relationship is the centerpiece to the adventure and both performers allow their characters to play off one another perfectly as we experience their growth as characters and friends.

The supporting characters are just as strong.  A group of Max’s friends led by a naïve, but gutsy Pomeranian named Gidget (Jenny Slate) who just happens to have a major crush on Max, notice him missing from the apartment building and set out on their own adventure to find and bring him home. These characters are all well written and performed.  Real care is given to make sure that they all maintain their very own distinct personalities, so that even though they don’t have as much screen time as our leads, they never get lost in the background.

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There are two performances that really stand out though.  Albert Brooks brings real life to his character of Tiberius, a hawk who joins up with the search party and is forced to fight his every instinct to eat the animals with whom he’s now aligned.  Then there’s Snowball played by Kevin Hart, who gives his best performance ever as a former magician’s bunny turned street-wise rabbit.  He and the animators go all out to make this adorable little rabbit as wacky, outrageous and psychotic as they can and the film is all the better for it.

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FINDING DORY has been sitting on the top of the box-office charts for weeks without encountering another film strong enough to knock it out of the leading spot.  THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS may be just the challenger to do it.  Fast paced, hilarious and sometimes emotionally engaging, a film that I initially thought would disappoint actually reveals itself as a welcome surprise, as well as what I believe to be Illumination Entertainment’s Best Animated Film to date.

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About Mark Oguschewitz

Mark Oguschewitz moved to Los Angeles, California after graduating with a film degree from Columbia College in Chicago, Ill. Pursuing a career in the industry, Mark became an award winning freelance editor. He is also known for being the creative consultant for the podcast "Skywalking through Neverland" and co-host of the Podcast "Talking Apes TV." Mark's short film "Gourmet" took the Best Micro-Short honor at the International Horror and Sci-Fi film festival in 2007. His spare time is all about movies. It's not just entertainment, but has become more of a real passion, as he tries to see everything he can. Art house or Blockbuster – It doesn't matter, he loves them all.