Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery—but parody ain’t bad, either. In 2011, The Simpsons took aim at Pixar’s decade-plus run of commercially successful, critically beloved films by playfully mocking their formulaic qualities with an excerpt from a “Mixar” short called Condiments, which chronicled the dopey misadventures of a ketchup bottle, a jar of mayonnaise, and a waffle in a bowler hat. The obvious joke was that, although Pixar is a great studio, it does follow a familiar blueprint: when humans aren’t around, objects or animals spring into action, often becoming involved in a harrowing quest where the characters must leave the safety of their cloistered home. The multiple film sagas of Toy Story, Cars, Finding Nemo, and A Bug’s Life all obey that template.
The Secret Life of Pets demonstrates the enduring appeal of the Pixar formula—and also how threadbare it can be if it’s not executed properly. Produced by Illumination Entertainment, the folks behind the Despicable Me and Minions movies, this sporadically adorable, and mostly forgettable, family comedy exploits the fetching premise outlined in its title for the first five minutes. After that, well, I would have been just as happy watching a feature-length of Condiments.
The movie stars Louis C.K. as the voice of Max, a terrier who adores his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). Living in a Manhattan apartment, Max is always saddest when Katie takes off in the morning for work, leaving him to pine for her return later that evening. But borrowing a page from the Pixar playbook, The Secret Life of Pets reveals that, once the humans vamoose, the neighborhood pets socialize, including Gidget (Jenny Slate), a Pomeranian who has a thing for Max.
Max’s happy life gets upended, however, after Katie brings home an enormous rescue mutt named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Predictably, Max resents that Duke is invading his territory, but after some convoluted circumstances, they must work together once they get separated from the local dog-walker, forced to get home safely while being pursued by a gang of tough, undomesticated animals led by the street-savvy bunny, Snowball (Kevin Hart).
Right there, you have the setup for a run-of-the-mill Pixar film, complete with feuding rivals (à la Toy Story) and a fantastical journey home. But The Secret Life of Pets lacks the inspiration—the “oh, man, wouldn’t it be fun if this happened?” inventiveness—that powers Pixar’s best creations. The studio’s brain trust doesn’t just dream up a fun environment for its films—those worlds are examined from a thousand different angles, milking each precise ecosystem for all its comedic and dramatic possibilities. The deeper you go into the world of a Pixar movie, the more surprises there are—part of the fun is waiting to see what clever idea the filmmakers will spring on you next. Whether it’s Finding Dory’s oddball running gag in which the characters keep bringing up Sigourney Weaver, or the discovery in Wall-E that the former head of the big-box company is played by a live-action Fred Willard, there are always little treats and twists that expand the premise beyond a one-joke idea.
Illumination has had major hits since debuting in 2010 with Despicable Me, but thus far the company doesn’t have nearly the creative spark of its competitor. The Secret Life of Pets will probably make a bundle as well, but the movie is indicative of Illumination’s pedestrian output, featuring likable voice actors in broad comedies that teach painfully simple lessons in overly sentimental ways. (Oh, and there’s a ton of popular songs on the soundtrack to make sure we’re never bored for a single second.) The Secret Life of Pets is bright and flashy, sunny and silly, but above all else it’s perpetually anxious its young audience needs constant stimulation.
Louis C.K. is a perfect voice for sweet Max, who feels betrayed that Katie has brought another dog into their home, and the comedian’s acerbic tone, undercut with just the right amount of genuine pathos, gives the movie a grown-up gravitas. But Max isn’t much of a character; once he’s let loose in the city alongside Duke, our hero is mostly reacting to what’s happening around him, forcing so-so one-liners into decent zingers.
Director Chris Renaud, who’s helmed several Illumination film, tries early on in The Secret Life of Pets to model the different pet characters’ personalities on the specific kind of cat or dog that they are, which leads to the fleeting pleasures, say, of watching an otherwise dignified, aloof kitty fervently chase the light from a laser pointer. But like the film’s environment, the characters are only given a cursory once-over; for their villain, the writers rely on Hart to do his trademark over-caffeinated shtick. The Secret Life of Pets leans heavily on its cast’s personalities to fill in the emotional blanks, and the gap between Illumination’s perfunctory charm and Pixar’s concentrated genius is never more apparent than when Albert Brooks (Marlin from Finding Nemo and Dory) shows up to voice a conniving hawk. Sure, it’s kinda funny, but it’s not funny enough.
Ever since Toy Story opened in the fall of 1995, critics have hailed Pixar as a game-changing animation studio, using the company’s films as a cudgel to bash its less-sophisticated peers. Pixar has been lauded for so long that it has inspired backlash, as well as parodies such as Condiments. These days, Pixar has a tough time competing with its own films; Finding Dory and The Good Dinosaur didn’t receive the same rapturous reviews as Toy Story or The Incredibles, and with good reason. But where a rival studio like DreamWorks has kept upping its game, with Kung Fu Panda and the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, in part as a response to Pixar, Illumination’s movies just seem like disposable, slightly lazy concoctions that are perfectly happy to operate as cinematic babysitters for young tots.The Secret Life of Pets isn’t bad, but it is terribly frustrating. We’re living in an age of astounding animated movies, folks, and this is the best you can do?