After the huge success of their previous films Despicable Me, its sequel and its ‘prequel’ Minions (which I reviewed last year), Illumination Entertainment appears to be quickly becoming a rising star (or should that be ‘rising stars’, since they’re a studio?) in the animation industry, possibly on a par with Disney/Pixar or Dreamworks (the creators of Shrek, Madagascar and the new film Trolls, which may come out later in 2016 or 2017). Though Despicable Me and Minions have become something of a phenomenon in the past few years (partly thanks to Pharrell Williams’ perennially-playing 2014 song Happy, which features in the second Despicable Me film), Illumination have decided to have a rest from all the Minion-Mania and create something new and original this year.

The Secret Life of Pets is Illumination’s first brand-new film after Despicable Me and Minions. As you may have already guessed from the title, it’s all about the secret lives of pets – specifically, what our pets get up to once their owners have left the house.

Max is a small Jack Russell terrier who lives with his owner Kadie at her apartment in the deepest heart of New York City. He loves being around her, and every day when she goes out of the house, he waits impatiently for her to return in the evening so he can be with her again. Max loves Kadie and Kadie loves Max – they seem like the perfect happy family together. Max has other animal friends around the neighbourhood too – like Gidget the white Pomeranian (his current love interest, though he keeps denying it), Chloe the grey tabby cat, Norman the guinea pig (who acts as a sort of comic-relief character throughout the movie), Mel the pug, Buddy the Dachshund, and Sweet Pea the green-and-yellow budgie.

One day, however, Kadie brings home another dog – a brown Newfoundland/sheepdog mongrel mix named Duke, much to Max’s surprise and chagrin. As soon as Duke makes his new home at Kadie’s, Max immediately begins to feel neglected and jealous of Duke for beginning to get more attention than him. Unfortunately, the next day, Max and Duke are caught by animal-control officers after causing a ruckus around Kadie’s home by knocking things over. Hijacking the van from its human drivers and crashing it into a dead-end alley, they come across Snowball, a white rabbit who was originally a magician’s pet until he felt abused and escaped. He is the leader of a ‘cult’ of dumped animals – the likes of which include feral cats, tarantulas, crocodiles, snakes and a tattooed pig – who want to take revenge on humans for abandoning them without any compassion. Max and Duke initially agree with Snowball’s stance, even claiming that they killed their owners, but Snowball soon makes his aims to drag them into his ‘cult’ clear. In the face of persecution from Snowball’s ‘cult’ and animal control, Max soon finds a friend in Duke, and even more animals join in the hunt to bring them safely home in time for Kadie’s return – like Pops the blind and paralyzed Basset hound and Tiberius the red-winged falcon. Leona the white poodle isn’t part of the gang of hero pets, but she does make a couple of appearances in the film, pretending to act all posh when her aristocratic owners are around, but loving to play brash and noisy thrash-rock music when they’re out.

On closer analysis of the plot, The Secret Life of Pets is essentially Toy Story with house animals – Max being Woody and Duke being Buzz Lightyear. Kadie bringing Duke home closely mirrors Andy getting Buzz as a present for his birthday, and Max hating Duke as a newcomer is nearly identical to Woody feeling neglected by Andy and jealous of Buzz. Snowball and his human-hating ‘cult’ of abandoned pets are similar to Andy’s evil next-door neighbour Sid and his destructive habit of modifying cute kids’ toys into mean machines of havoc and intimidation. Even the whole concept of pets getting up to their own tricks when their owners aren’t around (including being able to talk like humans) closely resembles Toy Story‘s plot device of toys coming to life when humans are out of sight. Some people have complained about TSLoP copying a lot of its plot from Toy Story – simply replacing the toys with domesticated animals – while others have praised the similarities (could Illumination be taking inspiration from Disney/Pixar, then?) I’m obviously not the only one who has noticed the resemblances – even professional film critics are seeing them, and they’re somewhat mixed on the film itself. I feel mostly positive on TSLoP for its animation, characters and story (it’s by the same people who made Despicable Me and Minions, and taking a lot of inspiration from Toy Story by my favourite animation studio ever), though it hasn’t exactly dramatically changed the way I think about pets as Inside Out forever changed how I think about emotions. (This could be just my Disney/Pixar bias showing again…)

Only today, I found out that Illumination has announced a sequel for TSLoP, which will be released in 2018. If the sequel will be made, how will Max and Duke continue their capers with their animal friends? Will Kadie and the other human owners finally find out about the secret lives of their pets? (And Despicable Me 3 – or Despicable 3, as I like to call it – seems likely too, or Minions 2.)

Now for a bit of fun little trivia (slight spoilers ahead): a movie poster for Sing, which Illumination will release later in 2016, appears on the back of the bus which Snowball drives towards the end of the film. (Could Illumination be taking more cues from Disney/Pixar about promoting their upcoming movies, since they always show a hint as to what they’ll be releasing next in each of their films?)

A movie poster advertising Sing, Illumination’s next production, on the back of a bus which Snowball the white rabbit drives in The Secret Life of Pets.