The best thing about Illumination Entertainment’s new feature, „The Secret Life of Pets”, is that it’s so obviously, unashamedly a cartoon. Not that anyone is going to mistake the work of other mainstream animation studios for a Discovery channel documentary, but the character designers at Illumination really went for „funny” and „over the top”.
The film’s protagonist, a small dog named Max, walks around on ridiculously tiny legs; his frenemy Duke is just a giant mop of hair; his buddy Chloe, a gluttonous, sarcastic cat, is so fat she’s completely round. The wiener dog is longer than any wiener dog you’ve seen, a chihuahua with permanently exophthalmic eyes somehow manages to hold up its giant head. The animals from „The Secret Life of Pets” earn a giggle just by showing up.
It’s not just in the design, either; there are plenty of amusing visual gags and physical comedy. It’s probably no coincidence that Illumination’s most famous creation are the Minions, characters with a simple, striking look who engage in silly slapstick and speak no intelligible language. I think it’s possible to watch „The Secret Life of Pets” with the sound turned off and derive plenty of entertainment.
If the sound is turned on, though, you have to follow the narrative, which is somewhat less successful than the film’s visuals. Frankly, it all feels a bit too familiar, and cobbled together from the storylines of other, better films: Max feels threatened by Duke moving into his owner’s house, and they antagonise each other plenty before they (spoiler?) learn to like each other through shared hardships- so, pretty much the plot of Toy Story. The villain is as cute as he is angry, a device so overused by now, it has its own page on TvTropes.org. There are some dogcatchers chasing our heroes, which brings to mind, well, every other movie about animals ever made.
It’s also the kind of plot that really doesn’t benefit from over-thinking it (unlike another recent feature with talking animals, „Zootropolis”), and I, for one, have an unfortunate tendency to over-think everything. What is the film trying to say if the characters who form a kind of Animal Liberation Front after they’ve been mistreated by humans are presented as the bad guys? Perhaps it’s not trying to say anything. Still, how am I supposed to feel about the Hawk cuddling with his owner at the end, considering our introduction to him involved seeing him chained up, blindfolded and begging for release? Perhaps it’s best if we don’t think about any of it at all.
Fortunately, the film doesn’t really allow any time for unwanted reflection; it’s fairly quick-paced, funny and enjoyable. It also manages to tug at a few heartstrings, especially if you’ve ever had a pet: there is really something wonderful and quite indescribable about the relationship between a human and a dog, a kind of affection that cannot be understood by outsiders. „The Secret Life of Pets” is a fun evening at the movies for everyone; and when you come back from the cinema, don’t forget to pet your dog and take him for a walk.