No-one really needed to make this picture: most of the people who did are talented, but studio animation drains the originality from them.

Directed by Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud
Written by Cinco Paul, Ken Dario, Brian Lynch and Simon Rich
Rated G, 91 minutes

New York City. The premise is that our pets hate being left alone, so they have secret lives full of adventure and hijinx and relationships that we humans know nothing about. Any dog or cat owner will concur – animals know things we don’t, their senses are sharper, their communications more mysterious. There’s a good idea to explore here.

It’s attractive for animators too, because lots of creatures make for lots of comedy, and there is the potential to appeal across many ‘market segments’, as the studios now call us. Kids to grannies, the whole enchilada. The problem is how to make it new – and on that question, The Secret Life of Pets is barely passable. Even kids will recognise some of the familiarities – African animals escape from a zoo (that’s Madagascar, several times); small creatures get lost in the wider world and have to find their way home (that’s Toy Story, ditto). Viewers of a certain age will be reminded of Top Cat and his band of New York alley cats.

The common factor in the recent animated features is the concept of home – calculated to appeal to one of the great fears of any child, being lost.  I mean no criticism: all stories are built on our deeper feelings – fear, longing, regret, ambition – and for the best reasons. We need to fortify ourselves for life, and stories of separation and anxiety occupy an important niche. 

In studio animation, this has become axiomatic and boring. Modern film-making is full of lazy ideas, but for a while, computer-generated animation was different.  John Lasseter, the genius behind Pixar, made it extraordinarily vital in ideas and emotion. When the Toy Story films made so much money, every studio piled in behind, cheapening the approach. 

Twenty years later, we have The Secret Life of Pets, which has all the strengths and weaknesses of big-studio feature animation: it’s loud, strident in comedy and action, lacking in real character development or subtle emotion, but sufficiently plausible to attract good opening weekend grosses. Indeed, the film is a worldwide hit so it must be pleasing other audiences more than it did me.

The animation (from the team that did Despicable Me) is the best thing about it and not enough to justify its existence. No-one really needed to make this picture: most of the people who did are talented, but studio animation drains the originality from them. 

That makes the film loud, colourful, frantic in pace but less than the sum of its parts. Worse, it’s self-congratulatory, with a lot of references to earlier and greater films. There’s a point near the end when a cat declares to a dog that she is indeed, a cat. ‘No-one’s perfect,’ says the dog – a steal from the last scene of Some Like It Hot when Tony Curtis, pretending to be a woman, takes off his wig and tells Joe E. Brown, who has just proposed, that he is not a real woman. Borrowing one of the greatest finish lines in the history of movies, even as an homage, is a bad idea unless you are playing at the top of your game.