I have a dog who is so devoted to me that it crosses over from sweet and loyal to slightly pathetic and disconcerting. I am pretty fond of her too. When I go to work and she makes a dash for the door, with the plea of “Take me with you!” written across her face, I placate my guilt with visions of what I’m sure she does all day: nap, bark at neighboring children, and nap. The Secret Life of Pets begins with this daily ritual, familiar to so many pet owners, and spins it into an adventure of fantastical proportions, complete with a sociopathic bunny and a sausage-induced dream sequence.
The Secret Life of Pets focuses on Max (Louis C.K.), the faithful companion of Katie (Ellie Kemper). Max’s life is disrupted when Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet) from the shelter. Jockeying for the alpha dog position (a.k.a. the bed and food) quickly escalates to Max and Duke getting lost in Manhattan, pursued by a gang of unwanted animals, led by Snowball the bunny (Kevin Hart). Meanwhile, Max’s friends, lead by Gidget (Jenny Slate)–who is hopelessly in love with him—set off to bring the lost dogs home with the help of a falcon who lives on the roof of their building.
The plot of The Secret Life of Pets falls into the well-worn conventions of lost and found movies such as Homeward Bound, Toy Story, or Finding Nemo. The real fun of the film comes from the visual gags, many of which were hinted at or used in the previews. While clumsy animals or the juxtaposition between Snowball’s fluffy face and his attitude—a gag that is recycled in Gidget’s fight scene—are giggle-worthy, the children in the audience with me did not laugh nearly as much as I anticipated they would. The Secret Life of Pets is funny enough, but it does not feature any really clever or memorable humor.
Beyond the lack of creativity the story is also not well-plotted. Scenes cut from one plotline to the other abruptly and seemingly without reason. I often thought that the purpose was to build suspense, but then when the story switched back, everything was basically fine. The action also glosses over some important details. For example, how do Snowball and Max steal a bus in Brooklyn in the middle of the day? Why is the bus empty? Why is there only one Animal Control team for all of New York City? Not all of these omissions are minor details, and they reveal a fundamental carelessness on the part of the writers.
The film in part takes up a critique of the carelessness with which some people treat animals, through the fear the dogs have of the pound, and the anger of the eclectic gang of stray animals, including an alligator (who we can assume was flushed down a toilet), a pig who was practiced on at a tattoo parlor and then abandoned, a python, and many stray cats. Although they hint at a case for more responsible treatment of pets and other animals, that subplot does not really have any claws, even for a children’s film.
The Secret Life of Pets does feature some great voice acting by the ensemble cast. As Chloe, Max’s feline friend, Lake Bell delivers a deliciously snarky performance. She brings out everything lovably apathetic about cats’ assumed attitudes. As Snowball, Kevin Hart gives a funny, manic performance which brings out most of the humor in the character’s villainy. In the role of Tiberious the falcon, Albert Brooks is like the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland and Captain Hook mixed together.
Finally, I appreciated that, even in a film about domestic animals, the animators took the time to make the human characters, featured and in the street scenes, somewhat more racially inclusive.
The Secret Life of Pets was kind of like Max the dog himself. It offered reliable, if unimaginative tricks and some good laughs, but ultimately the most interesting part was the sausage-induced fantasy. I rate it 3/5 stars.
The Secret Life of Pets was written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio and directed by Chris Renaud. It runs 90 minutes and is rated PG.
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