It's no secret that in the world of CGI animated films, Pixar has long been the king of the heap. Nobody else seems to get near those clever girls and boys when it comes to depth of story and character and the breadth of emotion on their films. That's not to say that other studios are not doing well. Laika Entertainment has received accolades for much of its olutput, such as Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls. Then there is Blue Sky Studios, the people behind the Ice Age films as well as Rio 1 and 2, The Peanuts Movie and Robots. Plus we have the rather prolific DreamWorks Animation, the studio behind the Shrek quartet, the Madagascar trilogy, the Kung Fu Pandas, the How to Train Your Dragon duo, Megamind, Turbo and Home.
And finally to Illumination Entertainment, best known for the first two Despicable Me films and its spinoff, Minions. All three films are clever and fun (and there is a third Despicable Me on the way), and now we have Illumination's latest, the New York-set The Secret Life of Pets which spends an interesting, though mixed, day in the company of some of our four-legged friends.
The best thing about The Secret Life of Pets is the opening few minutes, much of which has been shown in the film's trailers. It's scenes of what our pets get up to as we leave them the day when we head out to work, and consists of various scenes of dogs, cats, budgies and other assorted creatures getting up to mischief once their owners shut the front door behind them. And much of it is hilarious, and probably some of the best stuff in the film – which makes it puzzling as to why you would give away your best material in the trailers.
Anyway, once things settle down we meet the hero of the story – Max, a Jack Russell Terrier (voiced by comedian Louis CK) who shares an apartment with Katie (Ellie Kemper) and has a pretty decent life. Which is turned upside down when Katie brings home Duke (Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet) - a big, lumbering, shaggy brown mongrel she rescued from the pWhole out with a dogwalker one day both Max and Duke get away, and so begins a big-city adventure that sees them encountering a nasty gang of alleycats, led by Steve Coogan's Ozone, and a bunch of owner-hating, sewer-dwelling "gangstas" led by vicious bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart).
The film is reminiscent of Pixar's wonderful Toy Storys (except with animals instead of toys) in that the other residents of the apartment building head out in search of Max and Duke. So it does feel somewhat familiar and unoriginal, but it's beautifully made and does have some very funny moments. Snowball in particular is a terrific character (clearly based on a certain killer rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail!) and a perfect outlet for Hart's manic comic talents. There's plenty for kids to enjoy (although a few scary moments that younger ones probably won't like) and enough jokes and references for the adults.
The animation is gorgeous, the character design is colourful and charming (although for possibly the first time in an animated film, we have a cat that actually has an anus) and the humour mostly hits home. It's no Zootopia, to be sure, but The Secret Life of Pets is well-made and very watchable – if only the story was sharper and a little more original.