Harmless. That’s the word I’d use to describe The Secret Life of Pets. But here’s the sentence that word is in when I think about it; Harmless but full of unused of potential. It’s a screwball comedy from Illumination Studios, the company that brought us the minions and who never ever want to let you forget that. Like the Despicable Me movies it’s full of zany characters and the jokes come hard and fast both at the expense of plot. But that’s fine. I like screwball comedy. What I don’t like is a complete disregard for comedic timing and pacing or a total disconnect between set up and the rest of the plot. But that’s just me.

The story is a mixture of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 if you syringed all the depth and complexity out of them. From Toy Story: when the owners leave the cast of anthrapomorphs they reveal their secret society. The main character is loved by his owner, but he’s jealous of the new kid on the block. They get separated from the owner and try to find their way back to her. On the way they delve into they begin to understand and appreciate one another. From Toy Story 2: a group of the main characters friends set out to rescue them before the owner notices they’re gone.

Conceptually that’s pretty solid. It worked in Toy Story, didn’t it? But the reason it worked in Toy Story was that it was made by some of the greatest talent in film animation in the world and had deep exploration of the relationship between owner and toy and how that reflects on identity. The story builds to each of the beats, making sure they actually matter in the story and contribute to the discussion of the theme. The Secret Life of Pets has the beats without the rhythm. Story happens in isolation from the theme, which leaves only the zany characters to try to engage us.

You can still have an entertaining movie out of that. Not one that anyone will remember past a week but still entertaining. But here’s the key issue. If you don’t have a solid plot, character or theme to ground your movie in, you have to disguise it with the more zany, fast paced elements. This has the knock on effect of making the whole movie zany, therefore making zany the norm. That means that when you really want to crank up the zany it loses its comedic punch. The set pieces and some of the wilder characters don’t get bigger laughs because they blend in with the rest of the film too much. So that’s what’s going on in the big picture, but what about the little picture? Joke to joke what’s going on?

Again, I’d have to say a lot of them are conceptually very solid. Unfortunately I also have to sy agin that it doesn’t use the concepts to their full potential. Just to illustrate the depth of this issue, here’s the worst example of it. Albert Brooks voices a hawk called Tiberius who in order to make friends with the house pets must control his blood lust and not kill and eat them. That has so much dark potential and I can’t believe it fell flat through a mixture of performance, direction and under-use. Poor execution aside, the strong concepts behind the jokes mean that some have to slip through unscathed. Mostly in the form of one liners. The standout for me is when the elderly dog Pops, played by Dana Carvey, tells the rest of the group that they may have time to waste but that every breath he takes is a cliffhanger. That’s some good dark humour right there. But the good stuff is way too few and far between to make this a good movie.

But what really ends up killing most of the jokes in this movie is that they seem random. I don’t mean “lol that’s so random!”, I mean that they come at random, lacking sufficient set up and payoff. There’s a scene where the house pets are at the equivalent of a nightclub and the cat Chloe, voiced by Lake Bell has a slapstick slide through a buffet table that is completely inconsequential to the rest of scene. A setpiece for the sake of a set piece without any relevance to events or character is an entirely pointless joke and there are more of those in this movie than I care to count.

The Secret Life of Pets is a film that wastes the potential of its setup and a lot of its jokes with sub-par writing and directing. It’s harmless but that doesn’t mean it’s good and I wouldn’t recommend you go see it. Just show your kid Toy Story instead.

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