I’ve talked on here before about the ups and downs of having kids with regard to movie watching. You end up watching some really horrible stuff along the way (I’ve been lucky; I think Home may be the worst thing I had to suffer through, while my wife chose to take the Angry Birds Movie bullet), but you end up looking forward to the minor pleasures. And the original teaser for The Secret Life of Pets promised some of those minor pleasures: while it was nothing groundbreaking, there was something fun about just watching animals be animals, and giving them a bit of personality and dialogue to go with it.
And let me say that those elements of Pets are pretty winning throughout. Whether it’s the dialogue between two dogs about the danger of squirrels, the cat’s disdain for…well, everything, or just the odd details about pet’s perceptions of the world, The Secret Life of Pets creates a pretty fun little world, full of charming asides and nice character work. (An all-star voice cast doesn’t hurt here; Louis CK plays Max wonderfully, bringing out his regular guy, but the standout – in no surprise – is Albert Brooks as a lonely hawk torn between wanting friends and wanting to eat everything.)
What’s less exciting is the story, which feels familiar to an absurd degree. Here, see if this sounds familiar: a beloved character feels threatened by a new arrival, and becomes incredibly jealous. Due to an effort to maintain popularity, both he and the new arrival end up separated from their owner, and have to work together in order to get back. As they do so, they learn to appreciate each other, and start accepting their new shared home.
Substitute “toy” in for “dog” in this film, basically, and you have Toy Story, only done without Pixar’s usual grace and ability to bring out real emotion. Indeed, there’s one brief sequence where it seems like Pets is about to go somewhere darker and more moving, as we learn what happened to Duke’s former owner. But the scene is immediately left behind, and never followed up on, and ends up feeling like an unearned moment of pathos. (Still, it’s better than a bewildering plotline about discarded pets searching for justice after their abandonment; it’s a funny idea that never really goes anywhere, and mainly serves as an excuse for Kevin Hart to yell a lot, which gets a bit old.)
All that being said, I certainly didn’t hate Secret Life of Pets; it’s just that there’s a funnier, more enjoyable movie trapped under its generic plot and forgettable action. The derails and sidetrips along the way are winning, and some of the odd character work (particularly Jenny Slate’s arc as a lovestruck poodle trying to save Max) are genuinely fun. And if you’re seeing it with your kids, you’ll enjoy it a ton more than sitting through another friggin’ Ice Age movie, I promise you. Just don’t expect it to compete with How to Train Your Dragon, much less anything by Pixar. (And don’t even get me started on some of the dire kids movies lurking in the future of this year. For every promising-looking movie like Kubo and the Two Strings, there’s three or four versions of the painful-looking Sing to come.)