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The idea of things in our home having a life when we are not around is not new. The Secret Life of Pets barely even hides its ‘homage’ to Pixar’s Toy Story where not only do things in our house have their own separate lives but also where a new member in the family causes a disturbance until it takes teamwork to get out of a big jam. It’s a bit darker than Toy Story but times have changed in the 20 years since and while stories remain the same, sensibilities shift. The Secret Life of Pets isn’t a game-changer but is a mostly good time for the 90 or so minutes you’ll spend with it.
Max (Louis C.K.) is a small terrier who starts the film narrating about the day his master Katie (Ellie Kemper) picked him out of a free puppies box and have become the greatest of friends. They go for walks, they play, they laugh and everything is right in Max’s world. The only issue is that she disappears every day for hours at a time no matter how much he tries to coax her to stay. To pass the time, he spends the day staring at the door. Meanwhile, the pets in the neighborhood face the same situation and make the best of it by playing together. That’s all well and good until, on this day, Katie brings home a new friend for Max, a giant hairy beast named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Naturally, Max takes an instant dislike to the dog and tries his hardest to make Katie change her mind. Well, it’s just barking to her, but he tries.
When Max and Duke are taken out along with many other dogs for a walk by the building pet walker, they get separated. A pack of alley cats steal their collars and they end up in the sewers where a tiny puffy, cotton-tailed bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart) leads an army of ownerless ‘pets’ in a world-domination scheme. Meanwhile, animal control are on the hunt. Duke and Max get mixed up for something they aren’t and in an accident, cause a significant chain of events that has a rather unsettling effect on Snowball. They are forced to escape and go on the run.
Meanwhile, Gidget (Jenny Slate), the pampered dog with a massive crush on Max notices he is missing and organizes a posse to go find him, recruiting a rooftop hawk named Tiberius (Albert Brooks), who fights his every instinct not to eat Gidget (her offer of friendship in favor of being a meal win him over), to search the city for clues. So with Max and Duke on the run, Snowball and his crew giving chase, the dog-catchers closing, and Gidget and pals on the rescue, all the pieces are in place for a zany animal adventure.
Directed by Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud, The Secret Life of Pets starts out strong with a wonderful sequence that any pet owner will surely get the most enjoyment from as it lovingly plays into the little habits and routines of pet ownership and offers a funny look at what life might be like when we are not around. This is really a smart and clever opening that unfortunately doesn’t last long before it steadily falls into a generic, over-the-top action-oriented chase movie with all the usual suspects. It’s a shame as it, like many films of the genre, tend to think that only wildly unbelievable set pieces with lots of fast-moving colors and one-liners can keep a child interested. I’m not sure what it is lately, but why are animals driving cars in movies these days? Like the recent Finding Dory, which was spoiled by a finale that featured ocean animals driving a truck, The Secret Life of Pets does one bigger and has a dog and a rabbit smashing (literally) through traffic at the wheel of a city bus. In these movies, even while they have animals speaking English, their lives seem mostly grounded in reality until the filmmakers can’t make a clever ending on the premise and just decide to throw it all to the wind.
That said, these characters are cute and the voice acting is what keeps this fun to watch. Louis C.K. is perfectly cast as the naive but lovable Max, speaking in a kind of dog vernacular that somehow sounds exactly like how I expect a dog would talk if it could. Slate is charmingly addictive and many others really bring their respective animals to life. Hart though is the real winner, turning the maniacal little bunny into a scene-stealing motor-mouth who gets the most laughs. They are all great, it’s just too bad the story is so obvious and predictable. Will little pampered Gidget surprisingly be a tough-as-nails, kick-butting hero? Of course. Will there be a contrived emotional twist to justify keeping Duke who was picked up at the pound? Naturally. Will someone get sent into the air and suddenly move in slow-motion in front of the camera making a sped-down groan? Count on it. These are just a few of the old standards dressed in new colors.
Yet for kids, there is enough here to merit a look, even though there are some dark turns that seem way out of place given the fun opening. There’s no big message here, no larger moral other than enjoy your pets, and maybe that’s okay. We don’t always need to learn big valuable lessons every time we watch a children’s movie. If anything, it’ll make you want to hug your dog or cat or rabbit or whatever you have calling you, in their secret life, their best friend.
Directors: Yarrow Cheney, Chris Renaud
Writers: Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio
Stars: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey