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Secret Life of Pets, The
Cute and fluffy
Loves: Animation, dogs, Jenny Slate
Likes: Illumination films
Dislikes: The idea of cats
Hates: Anti-animal people
Though it doesn't reach the storytelling highs of its competitors at Pixar, Illumination understands how to please a crowd, as it has shown with its uber-successful Minions franchise. And if you want to entertain kids and the adults they control with their film-watching whims, putting a bunch of fuzzy animals on the screen isn't the worst idea in the world. Thus, we get The Secret Life of Pets, which focuses on what happens when humans leave their animals behind at home to go about their daily lives. Talking pets done well is something of a guaranteed good time, and that's the case when they are created by Illumination.
Max (Louis C.K.) lives an idyllic life with his owner (Ellie Kemper in an unfortunately small role), until she brings home a new brother for Max--the massive ball of fur known as Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Things are far from copacetic between the two new forced roommates, which leads to strife and eventually causes them to become lost in New York City, where they wind up amongst the Flushed Pets, a gang of animal revolutionaries led by Snowball, an adorable rabbit voiced with manic gustro by Kevin Hart. It's up to Max' puffball neighbor Gidget (Jenny Slate) and a group of local pets, to track down Max and Duke and save the day.
Casting is a huge part of whether animation really nails it, and Pets was hugely successful at finding the right humans to play animals. Louis C.K. taps into the right mix of unawareness and goofy comprehension that fits Max, while Slate's energy and delivery are perfection as Gidget, making her character a true highlight of the film, along with Hart's Snowball--a solid cartoon villain, as well as an impressive psycho. You couldn't find better fits as dogs than Stonestreet and Bobby Moynihan, who are as good in the roles as you would expect, while Lake Bell channels the spirit of a cat as Chloe, a fat feline along for the ride. The film is loaded with great cameo performances, including Hannibal Buress, Dana Carvey, Steve Coogan and a delightful Albert Brooks, not to mention a host of great voice vets like Jess Hartnell, Tara Strong and John Kassir.
The movie is surprisingly dark for what's basically a kids' movie, with frequent talk of death. While Pixar's movies can certainly broach dark subject matter, like the infamous early scene in Up or the treacherous finale of Toy Story 3, the threat of mortality is never quite as spelled out as it is in Pets. That the darkness is butted up against the light and fluffy nature of the rest of the film's goofy animal fun makes it all the more surprising and affecting. It's not likely to permanently scar a kid, but it's still stands out as an unusual element in the film.
The film has a lot of enjoyable elements (especially when Gidget/Slate is involved), and the animation is top-notch, with tons of great detail and beautifully-rendered city scenes, but in the end, nothing about what transpires will be likely to stick with you. It's a very traditional animal adventure with traditional characters and traditional morals (and far too much dependence on popular music cues), marked mainly by the presence of some of your favorite comedic actors. You'll enjoy it, but it's not likely to become a cherished favorite.
The film arrives on a Blu-Ray disc and a DVD, in a standard-width, dual-hubbed BD keepcase (in an embossed, spot-UV-coated slipcover) with a a few promotional inserts. The Blu-ray sports a simplified version of the Universal curve menu, with options to watch the film, select scenes, adjust the subtitles and check out the extras. The disc offers audio in English Dolby Atmos, Spanish Dolby 7.1 and French Dolby 5.1, while subtitles are available in English SDH, French and Spanish, along with a DVS track.
Presented via a 1080p, AVC-encoded 1.85:1 transfer, this movie looks outstanding, with rich, vibrant color and piles of fine detail (all the better to enjoy all that rubbable, fuzzy fur.) The film wa made to look candy-colored and the transfer runs with that opportunity with strong saturation and no issues to go along with it. The image is sharp and clean throughout, while black levels, where limitedly present, are solid and deep. This is a great-looking film on Blu-ray, with no concerns about digital distractions, giving you a chance to truly appreciate the animators' work (as you may find yourself staring at something like the lifelike water.)
The Dolby Atmos track will resolve to a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 presentation for the majority of the audience, and the sound is fantastic. The amount of work that went into the visuals was matched in the sound, as there's a wealth of atmospheric effects and discreet sound-effect placement that moves the audio all around the room, while offering quality separation to the various elements, making them stand out thanks to their impressive clarity. The score by Alexandre Desplat is bouncy and jazzy most of the time--a perfect pairing to the tone of the film, while the music soundtrack is big and energetic, aided by boosts in the surrounds. Bass kicks in when necessary to underline the action, and dialogue is clean and crisp. Few films really utilize the entire soundstage to aurally create the world they are depicting, but Pets nails it.
- Three Mini-Movies
Sadly, it looks like the lack of commentary on Minions is the new norm for Illumination. But also as is the norm for Illumination, there are three mini-movies included on this release.
- NormanTV (4:01)
The guinea pig from The Secret Life of Pets passes the time by watching "TV": the view from the ventilation grates into the neighbors' apartments. When things get out of hand though, he becomes a part of the entertainment.
- Weenie (4:05)
The fantasy world of hot dogs was a brief, but memorable part of The Secret Life of Pets, and this short pays it another visit, in a musical bit of silliness that's loaded with small enjoyable gags aimed more at adults than kids.
- Mower Minions (4:27)
If it's an Illumination movie, those yellow Minions can't be far away. Thus we get this amusing piece of yard-work mayhem, which was shown before Pets in theaters. The Minions seek work in order to pay for a new blender, and it's naturally a complete disaster. It's not much different than any of their previous outings, but still plenty of fun.
- NormanTV (4:01)
- The Making of the Mini-Movies (7:23)
THe folks behind Illumination and the shorts talk about the influence of France on the company's films and the importance of the shorts to the company's development of talent, and discuss the origins of and thoughts that went into the three films. There are also peeks at the animation work and how the company brings together its American and French teams.
- The Humans That Brought You Pets (8:43)
A set of five interviews with the crew behind the movie (available with a play-all option), include Illuminations founder Chris Meledandri, Producer Janet Healy, Director Chris Renaud, Co-Director Yarrow Cheney and co-writer Brian Lynch. The focus is naturally on Pets, as they talk about their connections to domesticated animals, but the pieces also serve to introduce a crew of lesser-known creatives.
- Animals Can Talk (3:47)
See Eric Stonestreet, Lake Bell, Jenny Slate, Bobby Moynihan and Kevin Hart perform in character and hear their thoughts on doing voiceover for animation. Again, I admit I have an unhealthy love of Slate, but she is so entertaining I could watch her record voiceover for hours. Moynihan, as usual, is also a treat here.
- All About the Pets (3:47)
Hart and Stonestreet return to join animal trainer Molly O'Neill, who introduces them to some real pets, including dogs, cats, rodents and more, while offering some interesting info on the animals. There's an amusing, if not exactly subtle game between Hart and Stonestreet, which lends the piece some narrative, but either way it's an entertaining featurette.
- Hairstylist to the Dogs (3:41)
Stonestreet plays host on a featurette with celebrity pet groomer Jess Rona, who guides him in styling a pup, including nail polish (which apparently is a thing for dogs.) It's a fluffy piece (pardon the pun) but it will appeal to kids drawn by the film's cute animals.
- Exclusive to Blu-ray: How to Make an Animated Films (4:13)
Mixed with behind-the-scenes footage, several of the crew and a few of the cast offer their thoughts on the key elements of the production, including the animation and music, in a piece that thankfully doesn't repeat from the previous interviews.
- Exclusive to Blu-ray: Anatomy of a Scene (4:46)
This excellent featurette breaks down all the crew positions that touch the animation in a scene and what they were looking to accomplish with their work, including the theory behind the technique. For anyone without an in-depth understanding of CG animation, this will be eye-opening.
- The Best of Snowball (1:15)
A montage of moments from the film featuring the fuzzy bunny played by Hart. Hard to figure out the point of this one.
- "Lovely Day" Lyric Video (2:23)
A music video combining word animation and footage from the film. No one should need a reason to listen to Bill Withers' wonderful tune, but here it's mixed with cute animals, so there's extra motivation.
- Hot Dog Sing-Along (1:12)
Singing hot dogs and karaoke-style lyrics for the song "We Go Together" from Grease. No further explanation is required.
- Brian the Minion on Pets (2:46)
Three 2D-animated segments promoting Fandango put the Minions in an MST3K silhouette as they watch scenes from The Secret Life of Pets. The joke essentially repeats three times, with different clips (one of which is oddly a mini-movie rather than the main feature) and slightly different gags,
- GoPro The Secret Life of Pets (2:04)
Another blatant corporate tie-in features footage of extreme activities shot with GoPros, like skydiving and skateboarding, followed by analogues from the movie's characters, in animation seemingly done specifically for this piece. A GoPro was seen in the film, but this is a big-time stretch.
- Sing Trailer (4:02)
The full-length trailer for the upcoming animated film, which gives away far, far too much of the plot. It feels like seeing the movie may be unnecessary now.
- Ultraviolet Code
A code for a stream and download, as well as a bonus code for a free movie (titles were unavailable at the time of this writing.)
The Bottom Line
Fun and breezy (with an unusually dark underbelly), there's not much depth to The Secret Life of Pets, but excellent animation and delightful voice performances make for an enjoyable time for everyone watching. The quality is impressive throughout and the extras, though light on production info, offer enough to add value for all audiences watching. It's not a classic, but it is a talking animal adventure and it will put a smile on your face.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.