“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”
The first thing you need to know about The Secret Lives Of Pets is that it’s not terribly original. Fans of the Pixar Toy Story Franchise will find pretty much every element of this script has been lifted from one of the three Toy Story films. Of course, if you’re going to lift an idea, you might as well steal from the best. Of course, there are always formulaic ideas in films, particularly animated films geared mostly toward children. And while I really did enjoy almost everything about this film, I just can’t escape the fact that I’ve seen it all before. Sometimes that feeling got a little uncomfortably obvious. And by sometimes, I mean the entire length of the movie. Look beyond the plagiarism, and you will find the film a delightful collection of characters and circumstances that just so happened to have been ripped off from Toy Story.
We are introduced to Woody Max voiced by Louis CK. He’s got a pretty good life. A great master and tons of other toy animal friends in the apartment building. That is until Katie (Kemper) brings home a new toy Buzz Lightyear dog Duke (Stonestreet). Max is threatened by the newcomer and plots to get him gone. But when the two of them end up on the wild streets, they must bond and become friends to find their way back home. Of course, their friends from the building attempt to rescue them. They all run afoul of a rabbit named Snowball, voiced by Kevin Hart. Snowball and his band of “free” pets are plotting the overthrow of the human society. Of course, after a predictable adventure, we find out that Snowball just needed to be loved, and we all live happily ever after. If that doesn’t all sound very familiar, I suggest a marathon viewing of Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3.
OK, so the story is a little (and by a little I mean entirely) taken from the Pixar classic. It’s been a long time since the first Toy Story, so you would think that The Secret Lives Of Pets is going to blow you away with its cutting edge computer animation, right? Wrong. Look. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this animation. I’ve seen worse. But the characters are rather intentionally blocky and not the kind of detailed images Pixar and others excel at creating. These are the guys who brought us Minions, and the animation isn’t really what they’re selling.
So they went and got A-list people like Tom Hanks for the voices, yes? No. Kevin Hart is actually priceless as Snowball, but the voices are pretty much OK. Again. There’s nothing wrong with any of them in particular; it’s just that none of the performances is memorable enough to… well remember. There’s plenty of cute personality to be found, and kids are going to eat up the antics. If you’re eight years old, you really aren’t thinking about photo-realistic CG or who’s making the voices. Are you entertained? OK, so maybe that’s not what an eight- year-old is actually thinking. But if you’re the adult hanging out with that eight-year-old, the answer better be a resounding yes, or you know what. On that score the film does indeed accomplish its mission. It’s a film that will provide 80 minutes of thoughtless fun while teaching the value of friendship and being content with who you are. Coincidentally, the same messages taught in… you guessed it, didn’t you?
There is a cute new Minions short included with the movie.
If it seems like I’m a little obsessed with the rip-off angle, you’re absolutely right. I liked the movie in spite of the weaknesses it offered when compared to Toy Story. The filmmakers could have avoided such comparisons and made a film that was wonderfully itself with its own style and…you know… story. I don’t believe for a second that the plot-thefts were not intentional. I bet that a certain Pixar franchise was mentioned more on the set of this movie than the name of this movie. Everyone here deserves better. The people involved with the film spent countless hours of their lives to create it. The audience will give up an afternoon to watch it. It deserved to be its own thing, but it wasn’t. So much for the lesson about being content with who you are. “You really have to look at it to understand it.”