The Secret Life of Pets

Film Review |By Christian Tesfaye - special to Fortune

There are some animated films that certainly have enough depth and dexterity to be classed as exceptional films in their own right; there are, however, others that merely target children with bright colours, simple plots and much-loved celebrity actors. Unfortunately, The secret Life of Pets, is one of the latter. For children, yes, there is enough to make it an enjoyable watch. But, there is nowhere near enough for adults too to enjoy this rather empty film - 4 out of 10.

The trailer to The Secret Life of Pets asks – “Ever wonder what your pets do when you leave?” I have wondered about a lot of things – the vastness of space, the Malaysian plane that disappeared without a trace, who actually killed Kennedy – but no, I have never in my life, even by accident, even when I was a child, wondered what pets do when we leave them alone in the house. And I don’t imagine anyone has. Of course, the question is a rhetorical one, expected to entice peopel, but mostly children, into watching the movie.

Obviously, Universal’s marketing strategy has worked, and based on the film’s worldwide gross (north of 600 million dollars), I guess a lot of people have indeed wondered what their pets do when no one is around. Even the critical response, and this shocked me, has been largely positive. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a sequel has already been promised for release in 2018.

It is nice that animated movies are popular, even though most like them for their novelty rather than their storytelling. Not very many people can tell why one animated film is better, or worse, than another. Most consider these movies intensely marketed for children, but also somehow appealing to adults. For me, the difference is stark – some stories are far better told in animated form than in live action. Take Wall-E for instance. Or better yet, Hayao Miyazaki’s highly acclaimed Spirited Away – so heavy with symbolism, so calm in pacing, so coy in its allusions, so humane in its argument – it is a thinking man’s (animated) film. The Secret Life of Pets, on the other hand, should be branded ‘strictly for children’.

The film is about a dog named Max, who gains a new roommate, Duke. Max has been with his female owner since he was a puppy. He believes that their bond is one of a kind, and exclusive. The opening scenes of the film portray the master-dog relationship in such a way that one could be excused for confusing the two for lovers – maybe not physical ones, but mental lovers who feed of each other’s insecurities; this made the film seem somewhat interesting. Sadly, Max’s owner brings home another dog, where the plot aligns itself into commercial (and cliché) territory and the film becomes light-hearted and nowhere as provocative as it otherwise could have been.

In no time, the two dogs are at each other’s necks, playing pranks on one another, until accidentally they get lost in the streets of New York. To get back home they strike an ill-fated alliance with a disenfranchised group of former pets – led by a bunny rabbit – who have been thrown away by their owners. Meanwhile, Max’s friends, who are house pets with owners of their own, try to find the missing duo.

As per the current norm – the norm set by the innovative film studio Pixar – of animated movies, there is a short film played before The Secret Life of Pets. Nothing creative or novel in anyway, just a 10-minute episode full of sophomoric gags featuring the popular, and very annoying (which is why they are popular), characters – the Minions. The short functions as a prototype of the film that is to follow; anyone who likes it will love the movie.

One film reviewer I read praised the voice cast. Strange since to my eyes, and ears, if the entire cast was swapped, there wouldn’t be a single difference in the outcome of the film. Voice actors are chosen for their celebrity instead of their voices, so that their names above the film’s title could draw in viewers. This isn’t always the case though – some characters in animated films are unthinkable without the particular actors that played them. Like Jeremy Irons’s Scar in The Lion King or any animated character the late Robin Williams played.

Max is played by Louis C.K., who maybe one of the funniest comedians there is at the moment, but, let’s face it, has a very ordinary voice. Duke is played by the lesser known, Eric Stonestreet, who is most popular for his role as the overweight homosexual character in the hit TV show Modern Family. Alas, his casting is about as fundamental as that of an extra in a live action movie. Kevin Hart, playing an adorable (but criminally insane) bunny rabbit, was more memorable though. There are two reasons for this; one is that since we identify Hart for self-deprecating humour (mostly about his own height) and loquaciousness, a part where he plays a small talkative rabbit makes an impression. But what will happen, when down the line, years from now, no one remembers Hart? Secondly, as Hart is by far the most famous cast member, the majority of the jokes have been written, or maybe even given, to his character.

But who cares about the actors when the characters themselves are barely notable? Max is boring and static, with no character arc of his own, except that he learns to like Duke. And Duke is an underemphasised character whose entire reason for existence is to be initially disliked, and then liked, by Max. The sole effort the film puts in to get us to like the characters is to make them fluffy and wide-eyed.

The Secret Life of Pets is a movie too bright in theme and cinematography. Children like cartoons because they are bright and colourful, and the film caters to that age group. They also like simple plots they can easily follow – one with cheap thrills and one-dimensional characters. This film doesn’t just have a dreary plot, but it has been done before. Toy Story, the first instalment, has the same basic storyline – only the toys swapped for pets. Add to this the addition of the short animated film released together with The Secret Life of Pets, and Pixar has enough grounds to sue for copyright infringement.

By Christian Tesfaye
special to Fortune

Published on Sep 06,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 853]



With a reformist administration in charge of the executive, there has b...


The new electricity tariffs that became effective on December 1, 2018,...


Who it is that midwifed the rapprochement between E...


Ethiopia’s economy is at a crossroads. The same old advice will not s...


A recent photo between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) and George Soros...


The future is bleak. Millennials and younger generations who will inher...

View From Arada

There is heated debate on the propriety, decency and morality of breast...

Business Indicators


Editors Pick