Illumination Entertainment showed such great promise with their debut film “Despicable Me.” It wasn’t quite Pixar-esque in terms of greatness, but the movie had its heart in the right place, delivered some quality laughs, and included great jokes for the adults that were also appropriate for kids (“Bank of Evil, Formerly Lehman Brothers.”) They’ve responded to the success of the first film by exploiting Gru’s minions like they were a limitless supply of programmable Olsen twins. The minions dominated “Despicable Me 2,” much to that movie’s detriment, and they finally got their own film, which to date is the worst film in Illumination’s history (yes, it made over $1 billion worldwide, but so did “Alice in Wonderland,” and that movie is a hot mess). Worse, they even appeared in costume form in “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.” They’re like alien spores, hell-bent on consuming all life on Earth.
This brings us to Illumination’s latest film, “The Secret Life of Pets,” which does not take place in the minions’ universe, yet contains three references to them: the word ‘Illumination’ in the studio’s title card flickers so that only the letters spelling ‘minion’ are visible; a character dresses up as a minion for a party; and there is a short film starring the minions before the main feature (to be fair, that bit is somewhat amusing, and proves that the minions are funnier when administered in smaller doses). That might sum up Illumination’s problem better than anything: they care more about branding than they do about the quality of their films.
Max (Louis C.K.) is a dog who lives in a Manhattan apartment complex, loves his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper), and cannot wait for her to come home every day. One day, Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a giant hairy mutt of a dog that Max instantly dislikes for invading his turf, while Duke is not afraid to make life difficult for Max as long as he stays in Katie’s good graces, because going back to the pound would end in The Big Sleep. The next day, Duke betrays Max when they’re out getting walked by a dog walker, and both wind up separated from the rest of their apartment buddies. They’re captured by animal control, but are sprung free by Snowball (Kevin Hart), a maniacal rabbit who runs an underground gang of abandoned pets. Max and Duke go along with Snowball in order to stay alive, while Gidget (Jenny Slate), who lives in the building across the street, notices Max is missing, and enlists his neighbor dogs and some new friends to help her find him.
Credit must be given to the voice casting, as they attracted an embarrassment of riches in terms of comedic talent. In addition to Louis C.K., Stonestreet, Hart, and Slate (if I were starting an animation studio, she would be to me what Bonnie Hunt and John Ratzenberger are to Pixar), they recruited Steve Coogan, Bobby Moynihan, Albert Brooks, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, and Lake Bell, who was the perfect choice for the spoiled and bored cat Chloe. Sadly, only Louis C.K. gets to flex his comedic muscles. The rest just read their lines, and Hart got all of the good ones not meant for Louis. Brooks goes all Noo Yawk as the hawk Tiberius, but it feels forced. He could have just been Marlin again, and it would have been fine.
There are some entertaining but bumbling chase sequences, the kinds where people probably died, but who cares, this movie is about the pets, right? There is one great 360-degree fight sequence, but those scenes are supposed to be the gravy, rather than the meat of the film. Storytelling has never been a priority for Illumination, and considering that all but two of their upcoming projects are acquisitions of other properties, it doesn’t appear that it ever will be. “The Secret Life of Pets” is “Toy Story” with things that can actually move on their own in real life, but without the humanity. You shouldn’t feel bad for them though, because they’ll sell a ton of Snowball and Max plushes, and that is clearly what matters most to them.