“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?
The Secret Lives Of Pets is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The Ultra high-definition 2160p image is arrived at by an HEVC codec. The visual style is one thing this film actually has going for itself that is quite original. Many of the animation team are French, and it shows in the way the environments appear here. This image presentation does a wonderful job of delivering the kind of detail that does bring this world to life. While we may not be talking Pixar standards here, you can see some rather sweet finer details in the hair on most of these pets. They react quite realistically to the environment and even the mood and expressions of the character. The colors are also quite vibrant here. The image is usually very bright and cheerful. It’s that nice pop of color and light that makes the 4K disc rise above the Blu-ray in a side-by-side comparison. Black levels are near perfect, offering a few nice moments of contrast when the pets find themselves in the underworld of the sewers. It all holds up rather well throughout.
The Dolby Atmos presentation defaults to a 7.1 track. Here I was a little disappointed. The audio presentation is dynamic and very clear, but the design team failed to really take advantage of the surround field. There’s a lot of hijinx going on here that provide unlimited opportunity to immerse the audience into this stylish world. It fails at almost every turn. The end result is a nice-sounding but rather one-dimensional audio experience. The dialog certainly cuts through with authority, and the jazzy music sounds very good. I merely expected to be surrounded by this world, and I wasn’t.
The extras are all on the Blu-ray copy of the film:
The Humans That Brought You Pets: (8:43) This is a collection of interview bits with the production staff. Fortunately there’s a play-all option. Many talk about how their own pets and their stories made it into the film.
Animals Can Talk – Meet The Actors: (3:46) Check out the voice-actors in some recording sessions. They also deliver some of their thoughts on their characters and the film in general.
All About Pets: (6:26) Kevin Hart and Eric Stonestreet hook up with an animal trainer who shows them some real animals. Hart doesn’t get the cuddly versions.
Hairstylist To The Dogs: (3:48) A quick look at how the hair is animated on the animals.
How To Make An Animated Film: (4:13) A very brief look at the animation process.
Anatomy Of A Scene: (4:46) Pretty much a continuation of the animation process feature.
The Best Of Snowball: (1:15) A greatest hits of Kevin Hart lines.
The 3 Mini-Movies promised on the cover are actually commercials for Fandango, GoPro and A Sing trailer. Shame on you guys.
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.”