Cast: (voiced by) Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Steve Coogan, Ellie Kemper, Bobby Moynihan, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hanniball Buress, Jenny Slate, Albert Brooks
Directors: Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney
Writers: Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio
In the current climate of children’s animation where recent hits include such movies as Inside Out and Zootropolis, the standard, and consequently the level of expectation, has never been higher. Not only were both of these movies wildly entertaining, but they also told smart and multifaceted stories with challenging and compelling themes that resonated strongly with children and grown-ups alike. The Secret Life of Pets is not one of them. It is a cute and fun movie that is enjoyable for audiences to watch, which is enough if all you seek is a fun and pleasing distraction for your kids. Very few viewers will be moved or astounded by what they see in this film but plenty of them will have a laugh and will delight in looking at all the cute, well-designed animals that get drawn into the story. It’s the movie that children will like while they’re watching it but won’t remember after it’s done.
A terrier called Max lives with his owner Katie in an apartment and their lives are just about perfect. That is until Katie adopts Duke, a large dog from the pound, who then starts to take up Max’s space and Katie’s attention. A jealous Max tries to leave Duke stranded in the middle of the city but things go wrong when they both lose their collars and are then caught by animal control. The dogs are rescued by a psychopathic rabbit named Snowball who then tries to recruit them in his crusade against humanity. The two have to work together to escape Snowball’s crazed army and find their way home. Meanwhile Gidget, a Pomeranian with a crush on Max, notices that he is missing and forms a ragtag team of pets, including Chloe the tabby cat, Norman the guinea pig and Tiberius the red-tailed hawk, to help her find and rescue him before Katie gets home.
The plot is essentially Toy Story with pets. The protagonist who enjoys a perfect relationship with his master, the new guy who upsets the status quo, the bungled plan that results in them both getting separated from the master; it’s all there. However, whereas the journey in Toy Story had stakes, The Secret Life of Pets does not. The dangers Max and Duke encounter, such as a ruthless street gang of cats and a giant, deadly snake, are greatly exaggerated, resulting in an adventure that feels more like a cartoon than Toy Story ever did. There is little emotional weight or tension attached to their struggle and little risk taken in the story. This isn’t to say that the adventure isn’t fun to watch or that the characters they encounter aren’t entertaining, just that it is not the thrill ride nor the emotional rollercoaster that some of the best animations in recent years have proven to be. There isn’t a larger story being told beyond that of two dogs trying to find their way home but it’s still a story that will keep you entertained for a couple of hours.
Max is a relatable enough protagonist that following him around isn’t a bore. His function in the story however is essentially to serve as a vessel for the audience which means that he has to play it straight most of the time. Therefore most of the laughs in this movie come from the side characters. One notable example is Kevin Hart’s Snowball, the manic bunny rabbit on a homicidal rampage against human beings. Another is Jenny Slate’s Gidget, the intensely enamoured dog who is thoroughly prepared to turn the city upside down in pursuit of her beloved Max. My favourite was Albert Brooks’ Tiberius, a furtive hawk who must team up with the pets out of necessity and who must constantly restrain himself from hunting them. While I don’t expect any of these characters to become household names in the near future, they served the roles they needed to serve and were fun to watch.
When compared to the remarkable works produced by Disney, Pixar and Studio Ghibli, The Secret Life of Pets does not rank highly. It is not a particularly smart, creative or groundbreaking movie. It doesn’t really offer anything that you will not have seen before nor is there anything truly valuable for either children or adults to take away from it. However if a 90-minute distraction is all that you want, then this is the movie for you. It is likeable, harmless and fun. It may not be Toy Story, but few movies are. The Secret Life of Pets may not have any innovative ideas, inventive imagination or deep meanings but it has colourful characters, amusing gags and neat designs. With the right expectations, those can be enough for an audience. It is not a movie that demands to be seen but, if you’re looking to kill some time, there are worse ways to spend an afternoon.