It’s easy to be cynical about animated children’s entertainment. Relatively cheap to produce and a near-guaranteed box office success due to parents bringing their little consumers-in-training to the theater for ninety minutes of distraction, there isn’t much incentive for animation studios to do much more than rest on their laurels, produce mediocre fare, and rake in the dollars from the merchandising tie-ins. Not every animation studio is as guilty of this as others, but Illumination Entertainment has built their livelihood on substandard films with extremely marketable characters (most notably: The Minions). Their newest entry is The Secret Life of Pets, a film so lazily produced that it barely counts as entertainment.
Terrier Max lives a charmed life with his owner in a New York City apartment when one day she brings home another dog from the pound—the large, pushy Duke. Duke and Max don’t like each other at all, both thinking they should be the alpha male and therefore more deserving of material possessions and their owner’s love. One day while at the dog park, Duke and Max become separated from their dogwalking party while in a fight and become lost in New York. When the other animals in their apartment complex discover that Max is missing, they mount a search and rescue mission to track down the missing canines, who meanwhile run afoul of Animal Control and a gang of abandoned pets living in the sewers.
If there is a more obvious and trite premise of a children’s film than talking pets navigating human spaces as a mode for observational comedy, I can’t think of one. A simple and tried-true premise can still work with strong writing or performances, but unfortunately The Secret Life of Pets lacks both. There are two flavors of joke in the film: pets interpreting the world in a way different from how humans do, and good old traditional cartoon slapstick. However, the former are such banal observations that I think even children won’t find them novel or funny, and the latter suffer from predictable direction that relies too heavily on the pain being presented rather than presenting it in funny, interesting ways. The comic failings would even be forgivable if the story felt in any way substantial, but the character growth of our two leads feels unearned as their trials don’t teach them anything about cooperation or even much about each other, yet we’re supposed to nod along as they develop a friendship anyway for no real reason other than because the script says so.
The voice cast is similarly phoning it in, comprised of a strikingly adult-oriented ensemble of Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Steve Coogan, Lake Bell, Kevin Hart, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Burress, Jenny Slate, and Albert Brooks. The worst of it comes from Louis C.K. as Max, whose typically world-weary delivery sounds bizarre coming out of a smiling, panting dog avatar, though a good runner-up is Lake Bell as Chloe the cat, who sounds so perpetually bored that it seems unnatural even for her feline character. The only two performers who actually feel like good fits for the material are Jenny Slate as Max’s Pomeranian love interest and Kevin Hart as the psychotic bunny leader of the abandoned pets gang—if only because their comic stylings are so cartoonish even in real life.
The best I can say about The Secret Life of Pets is that it’s tolerable. Nothing it offers is new or particularly inventive, and I have a hard time imagining any kid claiming this to be their favorite film of the year when we already have multiple Disney features that far surpass it in quality—but it serves its purpose in providing a shallow, unchallenging light show for parents willing to drop ten dollars a ticket so that they have a chance to take a nap. They won’t even have to be woken up by children’s laughter because the theater’s patrons will be eerily silent in the uncanny valley between boredom and mild amusement. But if you aren’t trying to distract a little one, this is easily one of the most unnecessary films of the summer.