Illumination Entertainment, the animation studio behind Minions, aren’t a critical cause célèbre like Pixar or Ghibli, but there are a few easily overlooked reasons to admire them. The greatest might be their eagerness, in a cautious market, to chase after new ideas: it’s easy to forget given their current, world-encircling franchise status, but before the release of the original Despicable Me film in 2010, there was nothing quite like the Minions out there.
Though Illumination has yet to produce a straightforwardly great film, their latest suggests they’re probably now capable of doing so – and that the lessons of their three Minions-featuring films to date (two Despicable Mes and a misfiring spin-off) have mostly been heeded.
The Secret Life of Pets is a Looney Tunes-esque animal odyssey through New York City, in which a lovable gang of house-trained critters – Jack Russell terrier Max (Louis CK), overgrown fur ball mongrel Duke (Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet) and tabby cat Chloe (Lake Bell) foremost among them – slip out of their owners’ apartments during working hours and get up to elaborate mischief.
It’s dotted with occasional, parent-pleasing references to older films: an elderly hound (Albert Brooks) who falls for Chloe’s feline charms meets the cat’s scepticism with the closing line of Some Like It Hot; a snow-white, Sandra Dee-like Pomeranian (Jenny Slate) goes by the name Gidget; a dream sequence involving dancing sausages (!) riffs on Busby Berkeley; and there is a hyperactively violent white rabbit (Kevin Hart) who’s almost certainly a tribute to the Rabbit of Caerbannog, from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
But for the most part, this is laser-targeted at younger cinema-goers.
What plot there is, along with the entire premise of secret lives away from human eyes, is a little too heavily indebted to Toy Story for its own good: the animals’ cross-town journey is triggered by Max’s jealousy when his owner brings home Duke from an animal shelter.
En route, there are encounters with an underground cult of human-hating “Flushed Pets”, various hapless animal control officers, and a gang of evil street cats.
But fun and games is all you get, and the lack of meaningful connective tissue between the antics means the film begins to flag earlier than it should.
The animation itself, however, just about makes up for it. Illumination’s house style has never exactly been what you might call beautiful, but here those spindly limbs and blobby bodies make a charming kind of sense, and New York itself looks like a toy box of comic possibility.
The characters also move with a weight and momentum that eludes so many CGI animation houses, which gives the film’s slapstick set-pieces real punch: a short sequence in which a dachshund shins up a fire escape is probably the best thing the studio has ever done.
The Secret Life of Pets is no Zootropolis, but it’s an amiable time-passer, and hopefully a promise of even better things to come. – The Telegraph