‘The Secret Life of Pets’ Review: Dogs and Cats Talking Together, Mass Hysteria
There’s nothing new about cute talking animals; they’ve been the center of animated feature films since the earliest days of animation. But in The Secret Life of Pets, the old schtick still works. We’ve all had pets, and we’ve all entertained the playful thoughts of what they do when left home alone. Will my cat secretly watch TV while I’m at work? Will the dogs in my neighborhood throw a crazy party? The Secret Life of Pets imagines all of that and more, showing what the various animals of one New York City block do the moment they’re left home alone.
There’s the primed white poodle Leonard who blasts hardcore rock when his highfalutin owner leaves. There’s Sweet Pea the parakeet who flies in place while watching an airplane action movie on TV. There’s Buddy (Hannibal Buress), the dachshund who uses an electric mixer as a back scratcher. And then there’s our protagonist, Max (Louis C.K.), a Jack Russell Terrier who waits patiently by the door for his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) to come home. These sequences, many of which are in the film’s trailer, are the best parts of the movie, entertaining our silliest fantasies about talking animals.
But The Secret Life of Pets, directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney, is also a lot like another cartoon that imagines the private lives of non-human characters when humans aren’t around. The Universal movie borrows heavily from Toy Story, telling the same story of the old
toy dog threatened by new toy dog when Katie brings Duke (Eric Stonestreet), home from the pound. Like Woody and Buzz, Max and Duke don’t get along. One tries to get rid of the other until the two end up far from home on a series misadventures. Like Pixar’s first classic, Max’s gang of pet friends venture out into the city to rescue the two dogs – there’s even a moment that recalls a Slinky Dog scene from Toy Story when Buddy uses his long dachshund body to climb up a fire escape.
The Secret Life of Pets also has some similarities to two of this year’s animated films. There’s a surreal dream sequence in a sausage factory that looks a lot like the PG version of the upcoming Sausage Party and multiple ridiculous animals-driving-trucks sequences similar to Finding Dory. While those parallels are more likely coincidences, the similarities to Toy Story are what prevent The Secret Life of Pets from becoming a really good movie full of creativity. Yet still, it may not be wholly original, but it’s nonetheless an enjoyable family film that both kids and parents can find entertaining.
As silly as the movie’s humor gets, it never feels too inane for an adult audience. A Minions short plays before the movie, and as someone who doesn’t enjoy the bumbling idiotic humor of those yellow creatures, I can assure you that The Secret Life of Pets is nothing like it. You’ll find pratfalls and goofy gags in the movie, but the majority of the comedy comes from the robust cast of voice actors, all whom suit their characters’ personalities.
In many ways, Max is a lot like a kid-friendly version of the character C.K. plays in his FX series. He’s good-intentioned and naive, but easily cowers in the face of a bully. Jenny Slate is perfect as the feisty Pomeranian Gidget, while Kevin Hart voices Snowball, the angsty bunny leader of a gang of sewer animals who’ve been abandoned by their owners. Lake Bell voices fat cat Chloe, Bobby Moynihan is the energized pug Mel, Steve Coogan is the scraggly hairless cat Ozone, and Albert Brooks voices the hawk Tiberius, sounding much more menacing than the fish he reprises this summer in Finding Dory. The movie’s pets aren’t given a ton of personality through their animation, but the voices behind them bring each animal to life.
The animation in The Secret Life of Pets also looks great on the big screen. The movie opens with a soaring one-take shot that hovers over a glistening postcard-esque Manhattan, shoots down skyscrapers, and darts through the autumn-colored trees of Central Park. While it’s nothing innovative, the images pop with crisp, sharp colors that are delightful to look at.
While The Secret Life of Pets may not offer an emotionally poignant narrative like Inside Out, or comment on sociopolitical issues like Zootopia, it still achieves what it aims to be: cute, clever, and pleasantly enjoyable. It might not be remembered in years to come, but it’s good family entertainment, and sometimes that’s enough.