The Secret Life of Pets

Posted by Joel Copling on July 7, 2016

Sometimes, the act of being amiable is just enough for a project to work, and as an example, I offer "The Secret Life of Pets," an animated film that, until a hectic climax, is surprisingly engaging as an examination of animal behavior, both to and from their human owners and counterparts and within a community of peers that highly resembles the structure of 1995's masterful Pixar feature "Toy Story." The result is a pretty wobbly execution of material with endless potential: The pets many of us own operate, well, secret lives. The screenwriters of this film--Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, and Brian Lynch--do a good job of leading us to the point at which we are shoved into a big, action-filled, plot-driven climax by not focusing on the plot. When it comes, the feeling is less one of betrayal than one of a general sort of disappointment.

Max (voice of Louis C.K.) has long been the apple of his owner Katie's (voice of Ellie Kemper) eye. Indeed, Max' narration of the opening is revealing of a pet's feelings toward its owner as a mixture of platonic, romantic, and familial. Forever they are partners of the humans who wanted accompaniment in the form of beings who are not human, and as a dog, Max is a loyal believer in this ideal. As a cat, upstairs neighbor Chloe (voice of Lake Bell) is indifferent, and in that dichotomy lies the heart of what the film is getting at. Animals might always essentially be animals, but more specifically, pets are always going to be pets. Unconditional love is, by now, expected from beings happy to be dependent upon their owners. The best moments here are those few between Max and Katie that show their sense of camaraderie.

An intruder into his midst is introduced in the form of Duke (voice of Eric Stonestreet), a much larger dog that, to Max, is a threat to his position in Katie's spotlight and her adoration for him. The very funny middle section of the film pits Max against Duke in a battle of ego and wit, with Max framing the partial destruction of Katie's apartment on Duke's bulky stature and status as recent acquisition from the animal shelter and Duke luring Max away from a dog-walker in a park in order to roam New York City and leave him there. Meanwhile, Gidget (Jenny Slate), a sweet, tiny thing who has an unflappable crush on Max and a romantic view of how to woo him, follows his trail through the city. Along the way, Duke and Max become entangled with a group of rebellious, anti-human strays led by the deceptively adorable bunny Snowball (voice of Kevin Hart), and Gidget employs the help of an isolated, possibly carnivorous vulture named Tiberius (voice of Albert Brooks, best-in-show as he brings menace and humor equally to an unpredictable role).

The film ultimately devolves into a bit of mania that causes a lot of damage once again to the Big Apple, not a lot of it all that involving. The adventures of Max and Duke (and Gidget and Tiberius) ultimately do reunite them with each other and with those pets in the other apartments in their complex, but it's mostly an excuse to introduce a lot of chaos in what should remain a sweet story. The loud brashness helps nothing in the argument that kids require no more than bright lights and silly characters, and it's a let-down after the previous hour and change does so much to prove that the opposite is true. But the screenwriters, alongside director Chris Renaud and co-director Yarrow Cheney, are experts at capturing the idiosyncratic cuteness of our furry friends--such experts, in fact, that the problematic "The Secret Life of Pets" squeaks through on this regard.

Film Information

Featuring the voices of Louis C.K. (Max), Eric Stonestreet (Duke), Kevin Hart (Snowball), Jenny Slate (Gidget), Ellie Kemper (Katie), Albert Brooks (Tiberius), Lake Bell (Chloe), Dana Carvey (Pops), Hannibal Buress (Buddy), Bobby Moynihan (Mel), Chris Renaud (Norman), Steve Coogan (Ozone), Michael Beattie (Tattoo), Sandra Echevarria (Maria), and Jaime Camil (Fernando).

Directed by Chris Renaud, co-directed by Yarrow Cheney, and written by Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, and Brian Lynch.

Rated PG (action, rude humor).

90 minutes.

Released on July 8, 2016.