This review contains mild spoilers:

I wasn’t sure what to think of this movie, initially. The trailers were mildly interesting but never presented a film that would rank above an amusing distraction for an afternoon. And they all ended with the same scene of the Poodle rocking out hard enough to shake the whole house he was in. But the movie I saw was a genuinely good film, surpassing the mediocrity its trailers suggested.

The film begins with the story of Max, and his life with his owner Katie, a young woman who picked him up for free from a box on the street. Their relationship is as strong as the relationship between pet and owner could possibly be. She takes him everywhere on her off time. As she leaves for work, though, Max stays at home and diligently waits for her each day.

It’s during this time that we learn that Max has an extensive social group with the other pets in the building, who all converge on his apartment after their owners have left for work. Max has an admirer in the form of Gidget, a pampered Pomeranian who lives in the building next to him and gazes lovingly at him each day from her window.

Things change when Katie brings back another pet, a large obstructive hound named Duke. Immediately there is conflict. Max, unable to establish his authority and territory due to his diminutive size, is quickly browbeaten into submission by Duke. Their animosity culminates into disaster when they are found without their collars by dog catchers. Taken far from home, Duke and Max must work together if they are to get back to Katie.

Max waits for Katie to get home. Image courtesy Universal.

The film is another mark in Universal Studios’ list of hit animated pictures produced by Illumination Entertainment. Universal now has a successful method of producing quality animated films on the cheap. Pets’ budget didn’t exceed $75 million, but it’s already taken in over $400 million at the worldwide box office. A comparative hit from Pixar or Dreamworks would have production costs of over $120 million, sometimes approaching $200 million in Pixar’s case. In today’s competitive market, bankable franchises and branding are what’s required for a studio in case their other, less surefire projects bomb. The fact that Illumination can keep up with Disney’s box office receipts and do so on half the budget means that we’ll be seeing a lot more from them in the future. Indeed, Pets is already slated for a sequel.

The film features a stellar cast. The voice work is incredibly well done, and each voice is appropriately suited to its character. Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, and Kevin Hart all make their mark on the film. I didn’t even recognize Max as Louis C. K., who carries the role with a lilting innocence to his voice that runs counter to his often world-weary characters. Kevin Hart seems like he was given free reign to ad lib quite a few of his lines. Unlike such instances in Central Intelligence, it works here for the most part.

The movie is chock-full of jokes, most of which work. But it takes time away from the hilarity every now and then to reflect on the characters, which is nice, and sets us up for a heartwarming ending. The characters have realistic goals and motivations, and the situation that our two mains, Max and Duke, find themselves in where they have to work together to survive is pulled off with enough skill that their growth into friends feels natural. At first fighting together for necessity, their motivations to help each other out become selfless.

Kevin Hart plays Snowball, the world’s deadliest bunny. Image Courtesy Universal.

The Secret Life of Pets was a pleasant surprise. I’m happy to give this film 8/10.

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