THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS Review

One should not approach the latest from Illumination Entertainment with the lofty expectations of the emotional devastation and weight brought on by the Pixar films, but rather set their sights and mood in a different general direction all together. Of course, with the kind of impactful and more substantial stories that Pixar tells they are intending to make something of a lasting impression on viewers, but the folks at Illumination-the same ones who created the Despicable Me and Minions movies-aren't really up for that-at least not yet. Rather, their latest original offering, The Secret Life of Pets, is a complete farce of sorts-a straightforward comedy that has no intent of connecting on some deep, emotional level with the audience, but instead simply hopes to skate by on its absurdity and slapstick. This can only result in good things as far as comedy goes and by virtue of that mentality it is the comedy that is the best thing The Secret Life of Pets has going for it. To push the Pixar comparison further I went in expecting something akin to Toy Story, but with animals. Given the tone and perceived concept that was conveyed in that first, rather stellar trailer it seemed that was what we were getting. Like Toy Story, the idea of what your pets might do all day while you're at work could be a fascinating world to explore (and maybe they'll stick to this premise in the inevitable sequel), but this movie deviates from that idea rather quickly and becomes more an "animals on an adventure" type movie in the vein of something like Homeward Bound, but with much more ludicrously improbable situations. And that's fine. Really, it is. Not every animated movie has to shoot for the stars and bring about a narrative that is designed to capitalize on momentous moments that forever influence the course of our lives and The Secret Life of Pets is a completely acceptable animated family movie that displays the different types of animated family movies that can be made without trying to hue as close to the Pixar brand as possible. I rather enjoyed the entertaining diversion that is The Secret Life of Pets and I laughed: a lot. Granted, the lack of any emotional investment will lead to that subsequent lack of any lasting impression, but somehow that doesn't seem to matter when what's in front of you is as fun as this is.  

Max (Louis C.K.) is surprised when his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper), brings home another dog in Duke (Eric Stonestreet) to live with them.
To sum up The Secret Life of Pets would be to tell you that it is about a small dog named Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) who has a good thing going with his owner Katie (voice of Ellie Kemper) until he all of a sudden finds his routine upended when Katie brings home a second, much bigger dog, in Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Max doesn't like the idea of having a brother and Duke isn't one to take crap from a tiny dog like Max thus crazy adventures ensue that also include a barrage of Max's friends and other animals that populate New York City. To elaborate would be to include information about the rather expansive ensemble cast and the plot points that see Max and Duke wandering away from their group while on a walk only to encounter a gang of stray cats led by a Sphynx known as Ozone (voice of Steve Coogan) who steals their collars and baits them for animal control. While it looks as if both Max and Duke may be at the end of the line, heading for the pound, they are abruptly broken out of the animal control truck by a band of domesticated defectors that are led by the villainous bunny Snowball (voice of Kevin Hart). Snowball more or less convinces himself that Max and Duke could be good for his growing organization and thus takes them underground, through the sewers, with the intention of initiating them into the "home of the flushed pets." Of course, Max and Duke are only going along with Snowball's plan in hopes of finding an outlet to escape while at the same time their relationship has no choice but to grow stronger. If that wasn't enough, as all of that is going down we also have a rescue mission put into action by the white Pomeranian Gidget (voice of Jenny Slate) who lives across from Max and has a not-so-secret crush on him. Rounding up their circle of friends that includes a cat who couldn't care less, Chloe (voice of Lake Bell), a Dachshund who's just as cool and sly as he can be named Buddy (voice of Hannibal Buress), a hyperactive Pug named Mel (Bobby Moynihan), a Parakeet named Sweet Pea (voice of Tara Strong), and a grumpy old Hawk named Tiberius (voice of Albert Brooks) Gidget and her gang set out across the Big Apple to track down her lost love.

As you may be able to tell, The Secret Life of Pets largely benefits from its comically inclined voice cast. Having what are two of the biggest stand-up comics in the world in C.K. and Hart voicing what are essentially the two leads of your film only stands to create as many small, subtly funny moments as there are laugh out loud moments despite the two likely never being in the same booth with one another. Hart's spitfire persona as contained in his small stature is perfect for the role of a tiny, fluffy bunny who has as much tenacity as the real Hart does on stage. Watching Snowball lead this rebellion against "leash lovers" lends the character echoes of Hart's stage act were it an appropriate routine for seven year-old's. To say all of this is to say Hart steals the show. Every time Snowball is on screen he is either garnering huge laughs or doing something outlandish that will cause huge laughs at any moment. In short, there will undoubtedly be a lot of Snowball stuffed animals sold this year. In the same way the film utilizes Hart's comic persona for Snowball it does the same for C.K. with our protagonist Max, if not as directly. In the beginning Max is very much our narrator and in this introduction to the world C.K. delivers the necessary exposition in a way that very much employs his preference for strong, observational comedy to shape the type of distinct perspective the audience will explore this unknown world through. As the plot thickens and C.K.'s Max plays more of a role in the action rather than directing it his voice becomes somewhat lost in the shuffle of everything else that is going on. This is something of a disappointment considering the opportunity the writers were afforded with C.K., but it feels more like the comic was asked to stick to the script rather than add his own flair to the character. That said, the film does utilize its tremendous voice cast elsewhere such as with Gidget who Slate brings real personality to (her voice work is only becoming increasingly more impressive and diverse) as well as in Chloe, who we recognize from the moment we meet her, but who Bell completely embodies in her own snarky, apathetic way. And were it not for the lack of room in the movie Mel might have run away with the thing literally and figuratively as SNL's Moynihan is a close second to Hart's Snowball in terms of pure pop sugar pleasure.

Snowball (Kevin Hart) is the real star in The Secret Life of Pets.
Where the film finds strength in its voice cast (I've failed to mention Dana Carvey as the elderly Basset Hound, Pops, but he deserves a nod) it comes up somewhat short in the story department. Like I said before, this could have very well have been a "pull back the curtain" type of film that explored the different personalities and world views based on different domesticated/abandoned/strayed experiences and in some regards it seems like The Secret Life of Pets wants to take this route. In many ways, the film has an identity crisis of tone in that it desires to simply be about the characters and about where their personalities take them rather than follow the standard structure of an animated children's movie, but in this kind of tug of war of tone the overall film ends up feeling a lot more scattershot than the first twenty or so minutes indicate. The large roster of characters is both a savior in terms of giving the 90-minute feature plenty of ground to cover, but that it offers as many personalities as it does allows for parts of the movie to feel like they don't necessarily fit or are out of a different movie entirely. It's funny really, just as I was beginning to think The Secret Life of Pets would have made a great musical in the vein of something like Oliver & Company we get The Sausage Factory Singers doing a rendition of "We Go Together," from Grease and while it's super entertaining and features some creative ways in which hot dogs could be used as hula skirts it is insanely random and only leaves the more mature members of the audience wondering what exactly was in those hot dogs? That the film goes from this scene to the next where it then tries to tap into some genuinely emotional material dealing with Duke doesn't exactly mesh and sends mixed signals about what exactly the film is trying to be/say. And yet, the film has enough inherently creative tendencies and uses its NYC setting to its full advantage (a scene where Buddy scales a building perfectly melds these two attributes) as it explores a world where tattooed pigs drive taxis. It is a perfectly cute and appropriately silly movie that also doesn't villainize those that don't have the same advantages as our main characters and may even give them a happy ending as well. The Secret Life of Pets might not be so much to write home about, but it's fine and sometimes that's fine enough.