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2016 has been a great year for family films. While most of the credit goes to Disney for the epic Zootopia, the solid Finding Dory, and the enjoyable The BFG, there are other studios out there with stories to tell, and now one of them has the chance, as the people behind the Despicable Me movies have taken a Minions break to bring us The Secret Life of Pets.
The Secret Life of Pets poses the question that every pet owner has: just what exactly do they do when we're not around? According to the film, quite a bit actually. Pets focuses on Max a terrier, voiced by Louis C.K., owned by a young woman named Katie (Ellie Kemper). The two are inseparable and share a special bond, as people do with their pets, which is tested when Katie brings home a "brother" for Max, in the form of Duke (Eric Stonestreet), an oversized Mutt who throws a monkey wrench, intentionally or not, into the life that Max has created. Max decides he needs to get rid of this interloper, but Duke has no plans to return to the pound from which he came. The attempts by each to get rid of the other escalate until one day, a plot got awry leading to the two enemies being away from their friends and without their collars, which sets animal control on their tails, and the two must work together to get back home.
While the story is fairly paint-by-the-numbers, what makes The Secret Life of Pets entertaining throughout is its cast of characters. Along the way, Max and Duke meet The Flushed Pets, a radical sect of former pets who now live on their own in the sewers and plot the overthrow of all human owners. The leader of this little army is a cute little bunny rabbit, appropriately named Snowball, and contrastingly voiced by Kevin Hart. Not since Night of the Lepus has there been a more bloodthirsty bunny.
Every animal character in Pets is a new, fun, and unique part of the story. The ensemble is what will make or break Pets. The sheer volume of characters is massive. There are so many that sometimes it feels like the solution to every script writing complication was "make a new pet." For the most part, it works, as the characters are all fun, if mostly inconsequential, and Pets is smart enough to know which characters to keep around and which ones to jettison because five more minutes with them will have you climbing the drapes.
On the surface, The Secret Life of Pets is about two characters trying to find their way home, but as they say, it's not the destination that matters, it's the journey. The movie certainly believes this is true, as the destination often seems to get overlooked by most of the film in favor of wherever the journey has taken them. This results in some random story tangents that aren't there to do more than add a few jokes and pad the runtime.
Pets doesn't really fail at anything it does. The worst criticism that can be levied against it is that it doesn't try hard enough. The movie has heart in it, but not as much as other movies this year. It has humor, but nearly all the good stuff belongs to Kevin Hart. The animation is solid, but you'll only realize that on reflection because you won't notice it in during the story. None of these are major stumbling blocks and certainly, they won't be problems for the film's target audience of children.
Although, children are actually one of the more intriguing aspects of what the world of The Secret Life of Pets creates, because there are almost none in the movie. While only Max and Duke's owner Katie has a significant role among humans, one thing that is made clear is that all of our primary pet heroes are owned by adults without children. There's never a joke about a kid who squeezes the cat too hard. In fact, most of the pets clearly live lives of luxury, because their owners spend their disposable income on their dogs and not their kids.
Maybe this is the secret of The Secret Life of Pets. It puts itself out there as a movie for kids, but it's really a movie for people who see their pets as their kids. It's a large audience, to be sure, and one that's never had a movie made for them before.
The Secret Life of Pets is destined to be the "other" animated movie of 2016, the one you don't remember as well as everything else you've seen. Which is too bad, because it's still a solid movie, with fun to be had.