Since the first Despicable Me movie landed in cinemas back in 2010, Illumination Entertainment – the company behind the films – has enjoyed a staggering level of box office success. Two Despicable Mes, one Minions, one The Lorax and even the live action-animation hybrid Hop have all hit to various degrees. Minions, its 2015 venture, grossed $1.159bn. Only Frozen, in animated movies, has ever done better.
So important is Illumnation’s animated output to Universal Pictures’ slate that, with DreamWorks Animation now also part of the Universal empire, Illumination boss Chris Meladandri is to creatively oversee both firms’ animated output. Not bad, considering Illumination is under a decade old.
Watching The Secret Life Of Pets, the new film from the firm, couldn’t help but ring an alarm bell or two though. For me, it’s everything good and bad about Illumination’s output in one movie. I’m sure it’ll make lots and lots of money. In this case, I’m less sure that lots and lots of people will love it.
Sold off the back of some legitimately excellent, charming trailers, The Secret Life Of Pets poses the question as to what our pets do when we head off to work. It sets this up excellently too, with directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney presenting us with a wonderful, glittering, stylised New York City, backed by a superb, charming Alexandre Desplat score (I really can’t praise the score enough). The centre of the story is a Jack Russell mutt by the name of Max, voiced by Louis C K, who has loved his life so far with his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). The terrific opening quickly answers the film’s key question though in about five minutes flat, as we’re taken around an apartment block and see assorted creatures behaving amusingly once the front door is shut.
The problem is that, well, that’s that. And there’s still about 80 minutes to fill. Thus, The Secret Life Of Pets goes and raids the cupboard of stock family movie plot devices, as it goes about an animal-centric take on Toy Story. Not that it setles firmly on one plot, instead throwing in assorted story strands, without doing much with any of them. Thus, Katie gets another dog to live with Max, then there’s some dog catchers, then there’s a sausage factory, then there’s some gangster animals. Turns out that the life of pets isn’t that secret at all, as we’ve seen it in lots and lots of other movies.
The Secret Life Of Pets is hardly shy about its homages, either. From the big poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds near the start, through to winks to Ice Age, Grease, Busby Berkeley and Toy Story 2, the references are not in short supply. At one stage, there’s a sequence that mirrors one in Jurassic Park 2, that left me thinking I should be watching Jurassic Park 2 instead. That’s not a poster quote, is it?
The problem, ultimately, with The Secret Life Of Pets is that it’ll do. And that, for me, is increasingly the issue with Illumination output as a whole. It creates wonderful characters, excellent comedy, and some quite lovely animation. All of that is very hard to do, I fully accept that. Yet it’s never, for me, managed to tell a strong, three-act story. It still hasn’t here (lest you think this is some miserable grown-up having a moan, my kids never really got into this one either, which really surprised me), and moreover, I can’t help thinking there’s as much interesting plot in the really good Minion Mowers short that precedes The Secret Life Of Pets as there is in the main feature.
The trailers are excellent because the trailers are the first ten minutes of the film. As for the rest? Whilst The Secret Life Of Pets has moments, it’s a competent, often-beautiful, animated production. But – and the film positively invites the comparison – I can’t help thinking that were it made by Disney or Pixar, it’d all still be in development, as they tried to crack a better story.
The Secret Life Of Pets is in UK cinemas from Friday.
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