The big secret in The Secret Life of Pets is that there is none. Animals talk to each other, they poke through your fridge, and occasionally they throw giant house parties for their animal friends, but you probably knew that anyway. Perhaps the real secret is why Illumination Entertainment opted to tell this familiar tale of animal adventure instead of something more original. Even if Disney’s monster hit and cultural-political allegory Zootopia hadn’t landed in cinemas five months earlier, this film would still seem like a stale entry in the expansive catalogue of animal cartoons.
The basic idea here is that our pets are just like us – selfish attention whores. Okay, maybe that’s not the main point, but that is what kickstarts the movie. Max (Louis C.K.) is a small dog, a Jack Russell Terrier to be exact, who has been living the good life with his person, Katie (Ellie Kemper). The little guy does not want for anything; Katie adores him, he adores her, I adore their swank New York City flat. But Max’s perfect life is upended when Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a huge, slobbery mutt with no sense of deference. Max immediately resolves to get rid of his new brother and return things to normal. His plan doesn’t quite work out though when both of them end up stranded in an alley, forced to evade animal control and a pack of feral cats.
Their bad day only gets worse when they are rescued by a cute bunny (Kevin Hart) and his porky friend. They discover to their horror that the fluffy, doe-eyed Snowball is really a snarling militant heading an animal insurgency known as the Flushed Pets. The collective congregates in the city’s sewers, waging guerrilla warfare against the owners who dumped them and against humans generally.
There are a lot of ways to turn this into an effective and moving story. There are messages about responsibility and pet ownership. Those are paired alongside timeless lessons about friendship and working past differences. Or maybe like me, you’ve just seen Rogue One and you’re thinking about how these ragtag animals can effectively lead a rebellion. Whatever the case, this movie fails to offer up anything that hasn’t been done better elsewhere, either through animation or storytelling.
It’s hard to become invested in any of the main characters, none of whom are particularly sympathetic. Max might be the protagonist, but it was his arrogance that started the whole mess and he takes the scenic route in trying to win back our favor. Louis C.K. has a hard time distinguishing his character too, which is a problem for most of the other voice actors here. The writers try to win us over with Duke, giving him a back story that is marginally moving, but I can’t help thinking they were aiming for the emotional weight of the first five minutes of Up and instead got a handful of deflated balloons. I was more worried about poor Katie coming home to an empty and ruined flat than I was about her lost boys. Snowball is an intriguing character and there’s novelty in seeing Hart’s antics in floofy animated form, but his shouty rabbit was sadly nothing more than that. We’re all on the same page when it comes to hating cruel pet owners, but his very loud call to arms is more likely to get him smooshed than it is to win hearts and minds.
The only character I did enjoy was Gidget (Jenny Slate), a cotton puff of a dog who lives across the street and has a massive crush on Max. Funny and relentlessly sparky, she is the only one with a burning sense of purpose, driving the story with the urgency of a desperate lover. When she discovers, in between watching her favorite telenova, that her boy is missing, she rounds up the neighborhood pets, which include an assortment of oddball dogs and cats and the occasional hawk, to bring him home.
As they scamper throughout the city, you’d expect some thrilling chase sequences. New York provides fertile ground for creativity here, but you’ve seen it all before. The animals dip in and out of construction sites and hijack buses in order to drive really fast into oncoming traffic. I prefer something like Oliver and Company, which also walks the line but is at least accompanied by a few catchy tunes. The movie doesn’t take any chances with the visual conception of the characters either. Sure, the animals are kind of lopsided, stretched a little here and there, but I doubt you’d recognize them from a lineup. The one thing that does set this movie apart from and above others though is the animators’ rendering of the city. Lines stretch endlessly into the sky and everything is painted with stunning, iridescent bursts of color. I’d be happy with just a short of pets walking me through this New York, and I kind of get it in the opening and closing scenes.
“Welcome to New York” by Taylor Swift:
“Lovely Day” by Bill Withers:
Prod: Chris Meledandri, Janet Healy
Dir: Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney
Writer: Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio
Cast: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Steve Coogan
Time: 87 min
Country: United States