When it comes to kids animated films, it is sometimes a fine line between making a movie that is both accessible to both children and their parents alike and crossing a line into dark, violent and mean-spirited territories. This causes lopsided morals, muddled messages and a lot of flustered explanations from guardians to kids that should have been avoided. This is definitely the case when it comes to Illumination Entertainment’s new feature film The Secret Life Of Pets, a film that has more than its fair share of darkness and instinctively aggressive attitude but, as an adult, this movie is still fun even though it brings nothing new to the animated feature market.
Even bigger for Illumination Entertainment, this is their first feature without the Minions as main players, aside from a short that precedes the film and a little nod at the end. Instead, the company decided to venture out with a brand new story in spite of the last Minions movie netting an obscene $119 million on its opening weekend. I’m sure the company is not expecting these kinds of numbers for the first film introducing an all new line of characters, but just by the enticing trailers alone, I expect a good haul will come in. This will shortly be followed by many mothers and fathers all over the world lambasting the animation company for the harsher themes the movie tries to take on.
The film centers on Max, voiced by Louis C.K., a terrier living the good life with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). Things are good in the lap of luxury until his beloved owner with a big heart brings home a stray named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). The rivalry starts as Max tries to do everything in his power to get rid of Duke and reclaim his prized Katie for himself. Duke, who at first is very happy go lucky, quickly becomes wise to Max’s intentions and, in an attempt to foil his plans to be the sole canine, gets both of them lost in the streets of New York with no hope of getting home.
Across the building from Max and Duke’s home lives a white Pomeranian named Gidget (Jenny Slate), who believes Max to be the dog of her dreams. Upon seeing that Max and Duke never returned home after going to the dog park, she makes it her mission to go out and rescue her hopeful boyfriend, employing the help of a hawk named Tiberius (Albert Brooks) and Max’s friends, Chloe the cat (Lake Bell), Mel (Bobby Moynihan), a pug, a wiener dog named Buddy (Hannibal Buress), and Sweet Pea (Tara Strong), a budgie. They roam the streets of New York, scouring for the little terrier, with a group of lost pets led by a rabbit named Snowball (Kevin Hart) hot on his trail, as well, but with ill intention.
Like I said in the opening, the film is fun. I was laughing throughout the film for various reasons. First off, the voice casting for this film is excellent. Aside from all the voices I already mentioned, we also hear Dana Carvey voice Pops, the disabled basset hound, Steve Coogan as a hairless street gang cat and numerous voice acting veterans like Tara Strong, Jim Cummings and Jess Harnell. The jokes and sight gags are as fast paced as the film itself and really come off delightful, at least on an adult level.
For the kids, it may be a little bit different. Through the course of the film, I watched my three-year-old daughter cringe and hide her eyes during most of it. This includes a scene in which Max and Duke lie about dispatching their owners in grisly ways, after which a gang initiation takes place where a large one fanged snake threatens to bite the little terrier before being buried under rubble, killing it. Yes, there’s a lot of death dealt with in The Secret Life Of Pets and you’ll be hard pressed to explain it to your little one. Why do all these former pets in the sewers want to destroy all the humans? Why are all these characters first instincts to kill, maim or hurt their oppressors? It’s a really tough sell in this department.
Illumination really does succeed on their animation though, I think topping what they did with the Despicable Me movies and the Minions flick. The character designs are incredibly interesting and the facial works matching up with the voices is really endearing. Just on these elements are coupled with hilarious animal behavior that seems all too familiar, if you’re a pet owner, this film will constantly keep you laughing as your child shakes at your side. As an adult, the pessimistic attitude of the film won’t really break your stride and may make you want to give it another look, as it did with me.
With Illumination setting out to make an all age encompassing film like it did with their previous efforts, I think they maybe made a bit of an oversight by trying to appeal to an older crowd as well. There are allusions to swearing, gang warfare and mass murder that cannot be overlooked in this genre and seriously depreciate the value of the film. This may be one you want to watch in your own home to guard your child so they don’t lose that bit of innocence, but the 3D element of the film may be too good to miss out on. Either way, I had to drop my rating a little bit on the alienation of kids with a harsh message so I give it a three and a half out of five.