Review: 'The Secret Life Of Pets' Is A Silly, Poor Excuse For A 'Toy Story' Retread

Pixar Animation has set the bar pretty high when it comes to storytelling for the whole family. Their movies consistently have interesting, funny characters that have undeniable chemistry, and the story comes with a heart full of a myriad of emotions. Meanwhile, Illumination Entertainment seems to be more focused on just making kids laugh rather than telling a story with substance. It's not that an animated movie can't have childish humor, but when a movie like The Secret Life of Pets essentially links a series of wacky animals and vignettes together without effectively making you care about the characters, then we have a problem.

Read our full Secret Life of Pets review after the jump.

The story of The Secret Life of Pets is simple enough. Max (Louis C.K.) is a dog who was taken in by Katie (Ellie Kemper) and has a comfortable home in an apartment in New York City not far from Central Park. He waits for her by the door every day to come back home, and one day when she returns, along with her comes this hairy giant of a dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). He sleeps in Max's bed, eats his food, and is ruining all the comfort that Max's home once had. It's Woody and Buzz Lightyear all over again.

While out at the park one day, Duke attempts to get rid of Max, but due to a gang of intimidating cats, they end up without their collars. They get chased by animal control, only to encounter a gang of "flushed" animals who have been discarded by their owners and have taken refuge under the sewer, like an animal gang of Lost Boys. They're led by a wild-eyed, unhinged rabbit named Snowball (Kevin Hart), and they end up creating more trouble for Max and Duke as they desperately try to get back home.

The Secret Life of Pets

The biggest problem with The Secret Life of Pets is that you're never given enough to truly latch on and care about any of the characters. Sure, they're adorably animated, but that's not the difficult part. It's making you care about them because of their personality and story that matters. Pixar can make you cry and tell a whole story in the first 10 minutes of a movie as evidenced by films such as Up and Finding Nemo. But Illumination only puts out the most basic set up for Max that doesn't really do much to make you love Max like he was your own pet. This makes any care about the rest of the story hard to muster.

Surrounding Max is an interesting ensemble of pets, including a Dachshund voiced by Hannibal Burress, a pug voiced by Bobby Moynihan, a sassy cat voiced by Lake Bell and eventually a falcon voiced by Pixar player Albert Brooks. But easily the most entertaining animal among the bunch is Jenny Slate as Gidget, a white Pomeranian who has a crush on Max. The only problem is that you don't really care that Gidget has feelings for Max because he doesn't know it, and there's no foundation for you to want them to find each other except that it's the whole point of the story. While I love the idea of the female dog being the one to rescue her love, it's just done so carelessly and lazily.

To a larger point, the dynamic between all of these characters never feels organic or substantial. There's nothing that really ties all these pets together other than their proximity. They don't feel like they're really friends even though they're all friendly with each other. This is especially true of the misfit pets living in the sewer. It would be nice to have them exist as more fleshed out characters, as opposed to just all being forgettable animals from the wrong side of the tracks. Any redemption for them, especially for the crazy rabbit Snowball, feels tacked on and heartless without a better backstory for them.

The Secret Life of Pets

The lack of enjoyment I found in Secret Life of Pets is especially frustrating because it feels like there's a good story to be told every now and then. But as soon as you think the story will take us in a direction worth latching onto, it veers away. For example, I would have liked to spend more time meeting the animals in the apartment of an owner who isn't home a lot, leaving his dog Pops (Dana Carvey) to have countless animals come hang out. It feels like a pet bar, but this interesting location is abandoned just as quickly as we arrive.

But the most disappointing missed opportunity comes when Duke somehow easily finds his old home that we nonchalantly learn about in the middle of the movie. What should be a truly touching moment, one that pulls at your heartstrings, is instantly forgotten about when it's time to get back to the silly chase and action so kids don't fall asleep. For the same reason, the movie is populated with quick little detours that are amusing but pointless, like even shorter Looney Tunes cartoons but without the creativity (which is what the preceding Minions short is going for, but don't get me started on that stupid thing).

Finally, one of the other problems I have with Secret Life of Pets is that there doesn't seem to be any motivation behind certain character developments or traits that add anything to the story. At one point Max can't help a guinea pig wandering around his apartment's vents find his home because he doesn't understand how numbers work, and by association doesn't understand the concept of different floors of an apartment. But his mind is developed enough to figure out that he needs to lie to the "flushed" animals about killing their owners in order to be accepted by them for a period of time. There are jokes just for the sake of jokes, and that's something Illumination Entertainment frequently has a problem with.

The Secret Life of Pets

Even the way Illumination Entertainment handles their Easter eggs lacks subtlety. At one point, a hijacked bus driven by Max and Snowball (which is even more ridiculous than a comparable sequence in the end of Finding Dory) has a Sing poster plastered on the back of it. Meanwhile, one of the dogs goes to a party thrown at another dog's owner's apartment dressed as a Minion. Sure, whatever.

I can understand that there are some movies out there with the sole purpose of entertaining kids with childish, slapstick humor, colorful characters and settings, and a simple story. But Pixar Animation has shown that you can have all that but also have some substance, genuine emotion and an unforgettable cast of characters. During Secret Life of Pets I laughed to myself a handful of times, but never laughed out loud the way I did during Finding Dory or Inside Out. The animals don't do much that's funny beyond what we've always seen animals do in videos on YouTube. There needed to be more clever writing, a captivating story and characters who were more than vessels for goofy jokes.

/Film Rating: 4 out of 10