It’s naive to expect too much from Illumination Studios — the company that infected the world with a yellow virus named Minions — but the early teaser trailer for “The Secret Life of Pets” suggested something a bit more subtle, perhaps even experimental. Comprised of a series of vignettes, the trailer revealed what happens when the pets who live in a New York apartment building are left alone without human supervision.
Some of the bits are silly, some are mundane and some are melancholic. The teaser suggests an animated equivalent to a Robert Altman movie in the sense that it seemed to be a collection of smaller stories that would eventually intertwine. It appeared to be a bold, risky choice from a company not really known for either. Maybe Pixar wouldn’t have to be the only good animation studio.
But then Illumination made a major creative miscalculation: it released a very different movie around that footage. On the plus side, that trailer does exist within the movie, but the soundtrack has been replaced with a faintly, Dixieland-ish score that implies director Chris Renaud was desperately cribbing from the Pixar handbook.
However, as “The Secret Life of Pets” progresses, Renaud stops implying that he may have been influenced by Pixar and instead grabs you by the face and starts screaming, “Yes, I am blatantly ripping off one of the best and most well known Pixar movies ever made.”
See if this sounds familiar: a terrier named Max (Louis C.K.) becomes jealous when his owner (voiced by Ellie Kemper) is temporarily distracted by the new rescue, a giant Chewbacca looking sheepdog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), she brings back to the apartment she shares with Max. With Duke usurping his alpha dog crown, Max schemes to get rid of his rival. However, Max’s self-serving plans only manage to get Duke and himself lost in the streets of New York City. As the pair struggle to find their way home, the other pets (Bobby Moynihan, Albert Brooks, Jenny Slate, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey and others) that live in Max’s building leave their plush surroundings to track down their friend before their owners get home.
Yes, that’s right, “The Secret Life of Pets” is just “Toy Story” recast with domesticated animals. “Pets” even goes as far as to take Sid’s sinister collection of misfit toys and remake them as a ragtag bunch of animals that were flushed down a toilet (such as a pig on which amateur tattoo artists practiced). If that wasn’t enough, the film has the large, disturbingly unneutered balls to rip off that Homer in the land of chocolate sequence from the third season of “The Simpsons.”
Like “Despicable Me” and “Minions,” most of “The Secret Life of Pets” feels warmed over and familiar in a second hand way. It’s the kind of movie that seems like it was based on a tattered thrift shop copy of “Garfield Takes the Cake,” it’s all hacky observations about stupid dogs and persnickety cats.
Even worse, shit and piss gags are all over this movie; which is quickly becoming the children’s movie equivalent to a jump scare in a horror movie; it’s there to garner a cheap, unearned reaction.
Fortunately, unlike Renaud’s previous films, “The Secret Life of Pets” isn’t quite obnoxious, mainly because it’s far too bland.
All of which is very depressing because there’s a good movie lurking within “The Secret Life of Pets.” Apart from the opening vignette, there are fleeting “Zootopia”-esque takes on classism and race relations that resonate beyond any moment in which the Kevin Hart rabbit accidentally shits on the ground.