“Awwwww. That’s just like [insert pet name],” is a phrase I heard whispered several times by the random people around me at a sold out screening of The Secret Life of Pets yesterday, and that makes total sense. Secret Life of Pets, from the people at Illumination Entertainment most known for Despicable Me, lives to indulge our preoccupation with our four-legged friends as well as the various other animals we take into our homes. We laugh at all the little ways the animated animals remind us of our own pets (or pets we once had), and involuntarily let out an “awwwww” whenever they do something cute. We nod in agreement with all of the pet-specific observations, thinking to ourselves, “Yep, dogs/cats/gerbils/etc. are totally like that.” When we get home from the movie we greet our pet(s) and joke, “While I was gone did you have a secret adventure in the city like those pets in the movie?”
We’ve been entertained. Illumination has made plenty of money. And any kids in our lives probably now want Secret Life of Pets stuffed animals and other related toys. It’s the perpetual circle of the animated blockbuster. But if we’re honest with ourselves we know the movie could have been better. It’s good, just not Pixar/Disney Animation good.
Speaking of which, the plot is an updated Toy Story with pets. Max (Louis C.K.) is the Woody of the story, the de facto leader of a group of New York City apartment pets who hang out together during the day while their masters are away. His bond with his master Katie (Ellie Kempler), a single woman who found Max years ago on the street in a box labeled “Free Puppies,” is seemingly unbreakable. Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a new dog Katie brings home one day, is the Buzz Lightyear of the story, an interloper who upsets the social balance and throws Max’s world into chaos.
The difference here is that Duke is fully aware of who he is, and he plots to rid himself of Max the same way Max plots against him. However, their separate plans backfire and results in both of them being taken away by animal control. They have a reluctant adventure together in the big city. Meanwhile, all of Max’s friends back at the apartment, led by Gidget (Jenny Slate) and her new friend Tiberius the hawk (Albert Brooks), mount a rescue attempt.
The script, credited to Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch, rather efficiently establishes early on that while we hear the pets speaking the humans in the movie just hear them barking (or making comparable other animal noises). Moreover, there are a wide variety of genuine laughs derived from how much the dialogue accurately reflects the personalities we commonly attribute to cats and dogs, e.g., Max’s cat friend Chloe (Lake Bell) nonchalantly admits she doesn’t really care about his problems because, well, she’s a cat. Plus, by Illumination Entertainment standards Max and Duke’s adventure goes to some surprisingly dark places, and even before their adventure the film is not afraid of presenting them in a negative light since their fight over who’s the alpha has them both behaving like jerks.
However, there is a Wall-E/Up-esque story imbalance whereby the beginning of the film feels far superior to what comes later. The opening montage, which has largely been spoiled in all of the trailers, inventively presents the morning routines for all of the apartment animals. There’s a bird (voiced by Tara Strong) who breaks out of her cage and turns on the TV so she can fly in front of the fan and vicariously live through TV footage of fighter jets in battle. A dimwitted pug (Bobby Moynihan) alternates between blissful panting and enraged barking at the squirrels in the tree outside his window.
Full disclosure: I was predisposed to love everything the pug did because, well, here’s who’s lying on the ground next to me while I’m writing this:
Chloe disregards her cat foot and tries (and fails) to talk herself out of eating the turkey in the refrigerator. And Max dutifully waits at the door, counting down the minutes until Katie’s return.
This sequence most fulfills the promise of the film’s title, but it inevitably gives way to a buddy comedy-adventure story which escalates in zaniness to the point that by the end we’ve witnessed multiple scenes of animals improbably driving cars, similar to Dory and Hank the septopuss in Finding Dory. That’s not to suggest Secret Life would have necessarily been better off staying in the apartment building. There’s nothing wrong with expanding the universe and delving into the big city’s underworld, quarreling with a gang of alley cats and bumping into a secret collection of discarded pets led by a cute, little bunny (who’s sort of like an insane Puss N’ Boots voiced by Kevin Hart) planning a revolt against humanity (actually, that last part gave me serious pause). The question, though, is whether you do anything interesting with the steady escalation of weird, or if it’s mostly just a bunch of jokes and pratfalls. Secret Life is more the latter than the former.
What makes that especially frustrating are all the ways the film could have but chose not to go the more interesting route. [SPOILER ALERT] For example, Max and Duke are repeatedly captured by animal control, but they never quite make it to the pound, always managing to escape the truck en route. That maintains the adventure nature of the story, but it also passes up the obvious drama to be had from seeing these dogs in what they would view as prison (and all the colorful characters they could meet inside). We are later told Duke has experienced that life when he accidentally strayed too far from his first owner’s house, but why not show us? Even if you don’t have Max and Duke end up in the pound why not give us a heartbreaking montage of what life was like for Duke during his stay in the clink? There’s your Pixar moment. It’s Jessie’s montage from Toy Story 2 meets Lotso’s montage from Toy Story 3, and it draws us in, gives us more of an emotional connection with Duke.
Maybe they thought, “No, that’s a little too Toy Story 3-y where the daycare was like toy prison.”Maybe they figured all those infomercials with sad Sarah McLachlan songs shaming us for not adopting more animals has poisoned the well, dramatically speaking. Fine.
What about Duke’s original owner? Max helps Duke track down his old house, and we can see the payoff coming a mile away. Duke is afraid his owner simply forgot about him and didn’t love him, which is why he was in the pound for so long. Obviously, the owner, who we know from a montage to have already been an old man when he first got Duke, died. That’s why no one came to claim to Duke. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t back down from that inevitable reveal, indicating a willingness on Illumination’s part to go a little darker than they ever did in Despicable Me 1 and 2 and Minions. However, it doesn’t realize the full dramatic potential of this moment either.
Duke is informed of his master’s death by a neighborhood cat, and he instantly turns hostile, expressing an understandable sense of anger and confusion. But we’ve already seen a montage of what Duke’s life was like with his owner. Why not give us a follow-up montage of what the owner’s life was like without Duke? The cat could tell Duke and Max about everything the owner did to look for him, posting all of the “Lost Dog” fliers, going door-to-door to ask neighbors if they’d seen him, etc.
Maybe they thought they shouldn’t do that because this movie isn’t about the humans; it’s about the animals. The more important emotion in that moment is not the sense of loss the human felt but the anger the animal feels over having lost the human. Moreover, they needed to pivot from that scene into the madcap final act, and Duke turning hostile is what attracts animal control. However, it feels like we’re missing half of the equation here, or if not missing half the equation we are operating under lots of broad assumptions about the ongoing love affair between pet and master. To be fair, the story does present a counterpoint, specifically the insane rabbit’s revolution, but it is done in such remarkably over-the-top fashion the message behind it gets lost in the chaos. [END SPOILERS]
I’m not necessarily begging for something more subversive nor do I wish emotional pain on all the kids who see this movie. I’m more scratching at why films like Inside Out or Zootopia stand as legitimate Best Picture candidates whereas something like Secret Life of Pets is simply a highly entertaining (and insanely profitable) family movie. It feels like the former is crafted from a place of searching for the emotional truth of the story whereas the latter is reverse engineered from a series of ideas for comedy setpieces, such as having the dogs visit a sausage factory (and trippy hilarity ensues). That’s about what you’d expect from the people who created the minions. As a pet owner and dog person, Secret Life of Pets certainly made me laugh throughout, but the Futurama episode with Fry’s dog actually made me cry:
Of course, Futurama is a TV show, not a movie, and has nothing to do with Pixar/Disney Animation, but that ending packs a familiar emotional gutpunch. It’s an example of how easy it is to pull on our heartstrings when you add pets to the equation. Secret Life reaches for that, with its backstory for Duke and a Toy Story 3-esque moment in the finale when our heroes are facing certain doom, but it’s too busy being aggressively silly to let any of it truly land.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Judged on its own terms, Secret Life of Pets is a perfectly fine animated comedy with several standout vocal performances, dragged down a bit by a weird subplot with sewer animals and a final act which doesn’t quite bring everything together in a completely organic way. If you are not an animal lover, it probably presents rather limited appeal, but if you are you’ll be delighted by all the “that’s just like [insert name of your pet]” moments. However, Pixar and Disney Animation have proven the potential for emotional depth in these kinds of films, and Secret Life of Pets just doesn’t have that in its DNA. As much as it tries, it can’t quite find the ever elusive Pixar moment.
ONE MORE THING…
Are we running out of celebrities to cast in animated movies? Overall, this is Jenny Slate’s third animated movie, but second this year after Zootopia (she previously did a voice for The Lorax). Similarly, Albert Brooks is pulling double duty this year between this and Finding Nemo. Matthew McConaughey is doing the same with Kubo and the Two Strings and Illumination’s big Christmas release Sing. Ditto for Idris Elba with Zootopia and Finding Dory (and The Jungle Book, though there the animation was photorealistic CGI around a live action boy).
Of course, Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Ellie Kemper, Kevin Hart and various others are actually making their animated film debut with Secret Life of Pets. So, no, I guess we’re not running out.
76% – “Fast-paced, funny, and blessed with a talented voice cast, The Secret Life of Pets offers a beautifully animated, cheerfully undemanding family-friendly diversion.”