The Secret Life of Pets
Director: Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney
Screenwriters: Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio
Cast: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Steve Coogan, Ellie Kemper, Bobby Moynihan, Lake Bell, Hannibal Buress, Albert Brooks
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Rated PG | 98 Minutes
Release Date: July 8th, 2016
The whole idea that there is a life that humans do not know about when they live in their residence is not exactly original storytelling. We’ve seen it in The Brave Little Toaster and three Toy Story films. While those films focused on inanimate objects, we hardly ever seen a film that centers on pets, and if you’re a pet owner like myself, you often wonder what exactly goes on when you are way – unless you have cameras to watch over them.
So like those animated films, The Secret Life of Pets explores an exaggerated version of that narrative. While Illumination entertainment tells a hilarious story that is a culmination of every story of a pet trying to get back to its master mixed with Hanna Barbara cartoon vibes, it doesn’t quite reach the emotional level of tear shedding you would see in a Pixar film. Not a huge takeaway, but the film feels more like a Tom and Jerry cartoon that goes on a bit longer than it should. Read my full review below.
The Secret Life of Pets mainly centers on two dogs. Max (Louis C.K.) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Max was living the life as a mild-mannered terrier who could not stand seeing his owner, Katie (Ellie Kempner) leave. But it’s heaven every time she comes back. Except for one night when she brings home a giant hairy rescue named Duke, who doesn’t exactly grasp the concept of personal space and being overly friendly. Max immediately becomes territorial and wants Duke out, so he devises a plan where he would make a mess thinking that Katie would assume that Duke did it since he is the new dog of the New York apartment. It could have been a lot worse, but Max establishes that he is the alpha dog through blackmail. But before Katie can come back, the two are taken out by a dog walker. Max proceeds to constantly mock Duke’s submissiveness to a point where Duke takes it to drastic measures by taking Max into the city, and it is there that their adventure to return home begins.
The film has plenty of laughs and reminds us a lot of what you would see in a canine version of Tom and Jerry, with some themes from Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey and Toy Story thrown into the mix. While that may be funny, it can run its course immediately since the film lacks the kind of emotional beats, ones that you would normally see in a Pixar film, to balance it all out.
It’s funny, especially the white and fluffy Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) whose size should fool you as she won’t let anything get between her and her true love, Max. She is so tough, she rallies her fellow troops, a hyperactive pug named Mel (Bobby Moynihan); Chloë (Lake Bell), a fat cat with no filter and inability to fend off temptation; Buddy (Hannibal Buress), a wiener dog who has a taste of the finer things in life, and a very hungry hawk (Albert Brooks) to help find Max.
Meanwhile, Max and Duke have run into the Flushed Pets – pets who have been otherwise abandoned by their owners and are now plotting their ultimate revenge against them – don’t worry it’s not that bad. Led by the tiny white rabbit named Snowball (Kevin Hart), they discover that Max and Duke aren’t who they say they are, and try to nab them before they can hatch their plan.
Unfortunately because it doesn’t have that emotional factor, it is hard to take this film seriously. Even the Despicable Me films had much more of a connection with the audience than what The Secret Life Of Pets has to offer. Duke’s shoehorned backstory and subplot will hardly have an effect since it doesn’t feel like it earned itself to be in the film but rather something that was hastily added in to fill that emotional void. And yet, somehow, the bond between anyone and their pets helps make up for that narrative error.
While C.K. and Stonestreet are funny on their own, the characters don’t seem to have any kind of chemistry, and sound a lot like they recorded their dialogue separately. This happens more often than you would think as the talent often don’t share the same schedules, and yet the comedic timing between these two seem really off. They are comedic set pieces somehow manage to work despite their lack of chemistry, which is a very rare thing.
These shoehorned subplots really do take away from the enjoyment of the overall film. In fact, the film could have benefited without it. If anything, In fact, Gidget’s narrative was far more compelling than Max and Duke’s.
Even with these narrative flaws. There are a few things that The Secret Life Of Pets got right. For one thing the animation is gorgeous. Yes it is animated, but Illumination gives us the best cartoon representation of New York City that we will ever get. The city really comes to life during the night scenes and just shines during the day.
Another positive note is that pet owners – like myself – will be able to appreciate how the movie expresses the loving bond between a pet and its owner. Yeah, it’s a bit cliche and probably something you would expect to see in a film like this, but hey, it works.