Like a playful game of fetch, The Secret Life Of Pets finds mindless entertainment in repetitive predictability. You won’t get Pixar levels of emotional heft or glistening, hyper-realistic animation, only an ADD-paced appreciation of child-pleasing, slapstick animated comedy.
Stacked against The Jungle Book‘s visual artistry and Finding Dory’s heartfelt nature, The Secret Life Of Pets opts for expected (yet always hilarious) rabbit poop jokes – not every student graduates with top honors, you know. Writers Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch, and Cinco Paul draw up a sweet owner/companion dynamic between characters, and even though scripted depth stops at “loyal companionship,” there’s still a pleasantly goofy amount of laughs worth sharing with cackling adolescent audiences. Adorable, easy laughs…but laughs nonetheless.
Louis C.K. voices a proud little pup named Max, who cares very deeply for his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). But when Katie brings home a new roommate in the form of a big, shaggy mutt named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), Max sees his new “brother” as competition. Hellbent on getting Duke evicted, Max tries to assert himself as the alpha male in their budding relationship – a failed effort that ends with both himself and Duke hectically running from animal control. The two reluctant partners have no choice but to trust one another if they’re to see Katie again, especially after they piss off the wrong rebellion-leading, super-cute-but-mentally-unhinged bunny rabbit (Snowball, voiced by Kevin Hart).
It’s not until Snowball makes his tweak-y entrance that The Secret Life Of Pets hits its stride, for no other reason than Kevin Hart stealing every scene he’s in. You get the obvious “innocent looking animal who’s actually an insane Che Guevara type” arc of hilarity, but also Hart’s impassioned, screechy voice acting. Hart has found his niche, and it’s playing an overly-hyper, discarded ex-magician’s rabbit who wants nothing more than to destroy the human race.
I dare you to hold back laughter each time Snowball mourns his fallen soldier “Ricky,” a goose (duck?) whose loyalty and commitment to his discarded “flushed pet” brethren went unmatched until death. Cute animals pouring one out for their homies – a funny situation made infinitely funnier through Hart’s infectious energy.
The biggest tell-tale of Max and Duke’s adventure is that we never find ourselves pining over their homeward-bound adventure, and find relief in each wacky distraction. You’ll remember a sausage factory eating montage that transports Max and Duke to a magic land where encased meat products sing Grease’s “We Got Together” while dancing, but not Max’s introductory rivalry with Duke. Jenny Slate stands out as a glamorous toy-dog with a massive crush on Max, Pops’ (Dana Carvey) parties score animals-only silliness (most notably Leonard’s trailer-ending love of metal music), and – as stated – Snowball’s criminal insanity never disappoints. These are the selling points that directors Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud bank on, which deliver just enough personality and juvenile charm.
Aesthetically, viewers gaze upon a bright and cheery version of New York City that makes Brooklyn look like some high-class Jersey suburb. A few panning shots that scale famous landmarks (Empire State Building/Statue Of Liberty) impress through finely-detailed rendering, but most of the film passes on vibrancy alone, not realism. This plays along with the idea that a runaway dog and his fluffy co-pilot can drive an empty Greyhound bus down a traffic-filled bridge, suspending realism to the tune of Alexandre Desplat’s swing-dance-y orchestral score.
The Secret Life Of Pets feels more like a Saturday morning cartoon than expansive, awe-striking exploration into love, relationship and trust, from cartoonishly safe tarantulas (coming from a spider-hater) to Andrew WK-loving, head-banging pets who effortlessly navigate NYC like society doesn’t exist (there are a shocking lack of humans here).
Also, cat people be warned – this is a dog lover’s movie. Chloe (Lake Bell) provides a spoiled glimpse into the asshole-ish nature of cats (cats are dicks, seriously), with the only other major felines being alley cats who are evil, pick-pocketing psychopaths. Dogs are given all the empathetic, meaningful roles (even Mel and his paranoia of a squirrel overtaking), while cats are lazy, emotionless blobs who care about nothing but themselves. So, actually, maybe The Secret Life Of Pets is more realistic than previously noted…
My friends often joke that I’m easily distracted by animals doing people things, and maybe they’re right. The Secret Life Of Pets has many instances where animals – in fact – do people things, and I was quite entertained. Who needs a lasting thematic message when the princess apartment dog turns into a butt-kicking ninja, all in the name of puppy love? There’s more here than The Angry Birds‘ butt-slapping piggies, but not with the artistic reverence that so many Pixar masterpieces are able to achieve.
Then again, The Secret Life Of Pets has Snowball – a tiny character with a presence that kickstarts comedic momentum after a slower, more neutered beginning. Kevin Hart has never been funnier, putting Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud’s tale of two lost good boys on his back like a delusional bunny version of LeBron James. Come for the obvious pet jokes (“You’re a bad dog!” says a dog), stay for the tactical, spec ops rabbit. That’s all, folks.
Like a playful game of fetch, The Secret Life Of Pets finds mindless (yet still enjoyable) entertainment in repetitive predictability.