THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS Review
Directors: Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney
Genre: Family Comedy
Animated family comedies come with a set of presumed fallacies that must be forgiven. Considering the target demographic, it is more than likely that several similar, candy-coated chase scenes will occur, characterizations will be distinct but comparatively undeveloped, and there will be a poop joke or three. However, as the larger members of Disney’s generally impressive catalog will attest to, it is still entirely possible to work within these parameters and make a timeless and emotionally evocative film that will transcend boundaries of age, maturity, and taste to be forever remembered fondly by a global audience. Although certainly better than MINIONS (it’s almost not even worth pointing out that that’s not saying much), the long and short of it is that THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS is simply not one of these films.
First and foremost, for a family comedy, THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS is surprisingly light on humor. Yes, I will readily admit to being a 22-year-old Grinch that didn’t find the description of a sewer the characters venture into as smelling of “poo-poo and kaka” funny, but poop jokes aside, even the members of the audience still in their single digits weren’t getting much mirth out of the proceedings. The problem lays in the fact that the film uses up almost the entirety of its goodwill in its own previews.
The opening five minutes or so are a virtually verbatim regurgitation of what we’ve seen in various ad spots, with the human owners leaving behind their furry friends only for the pets in question to quickly go about eating all of the food in the refrigerator, peeing in whatever plants they so desire, and switching the music playing on a stereo from classical to System of a Down’s “Bounce.” It’s a perfectly serviceable gag, but anyone who’s seen the nearly unavoidable commercials will have already gotten their chuckles out of their system. From there it’s clear that the writers scramble to come up with another 90 minutes of content to keep the audience invested, and aside from the requisite jokes involving dogs enjoying fetch, smelling each other’s butts, and chasing squirrels (all of which we’ve seen in every film to ever feature a sentient canine), nothing feels particularly witty or fresh.
And too toothless to make a masturbation joke, to boot
What we’re left with is Max (Louis C.K.) being jealous and depressed when his beloved owner brings home the menacing stray Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Strong, human experiences and themes are important for animated family films, and at first I thought we would be getting a story paralleling the inevitable frustration and angst faced by a child when a younger sibling is brought into the world. However, Max is quickly advised by a feline friend to try to prove that he’s the boss through Alpha intimidation, which leads to a string of events wherein Duke retaliates by dragging Max by his leash through the streets of New York, resulting in their capture by Animal Control. From there, they cross paths with a rough-and-tumble gang of street strays led by Snowball (Kevin Hart), pursued by Gidget (Jenny Slate) and their other friends from home all the while.
The strangest thing right off of the bar is that THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS is far more dark than it has any real right to be. Snowball is obsessed with orchestrating the end of the human race, and scenes wherein he excitedly asks if Max and Duke killed their owner with a blender left a strange taste in my mouth. His consistent interjections revolving around death and destruction continually stick out like sore thumbs for the remainder of the runtime, and it would seem to be suggested that he and his immediate cronies just flat out kill a pair of Animal Control employees, or are at least integrally involved in their demise.
You guessed it, this is seconds before he poops
On a more general level, the entirety of THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS’ plot feels coincidental and arbitrary. Already on shaky ground leading up to Max and Duke’s capture by Animal Control, Max and Duke’s adventure back to safety is even more dubious and led by chance. The most glaring error is that Max’s owner, whom he spends the entire opening fawning over, is not mentioned once while they’re away from home! They’re motivated to keep fighting by a general fear of being killed by Animal Control, and then Snowball’s army when things go south, but not once does Max wax poetic about a time when things were simpler and more cozy. Instead, he and Duke randomly end up in a sausage factory after fleeing Snowball’s wrath (which features a strange dance number starring singing sausages that is comparable to a Baz Luhrmann adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s THE JUNGLE), which leads to an unfounded desire to find Duke’s old owner, which wraps up in a neat little bow by having the two of them get recaptured by Animal Control on their way to do just that.
THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS doesn’t even manage to get the big character fallout correct, instead having Duke yell at Max for leading him astray, only to save his life seconds later as Animal Control approaches. Gidget’s group fares a bit better, but is exponentially hampered by the nauseating inclusion of Pops (Dana Carvey), a paraplegic old coot who can’t stop saying “Me likey.” Throwing a last second team-up between Snowball and Max into the mix that nobody could reasonably buy, it feels as if Illumination Entertainment made the preview first and the film second.
Surprising, given their immaculate track record
Furthermore, the world-building and animation both leave something to be desired. I can forgive some questionable elements of story if its still for the greater good of a creative and innovative environment. Not winning any creativity points by setting the story in New York, THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS then avoids animating anything that would definitively put the story as being in New York, instead treating us to lots of scenes in apartments, sewers, and generic city streets. As for the animation itself, the style can best be described as “round,” feeling like more of the same that we saw in DESPICABLE ME and MINIONS. The animals themselves are nicely catered to, but the film can’t even be said to “look pretty,” which saves films like FINDING DORY to some degree.
Now, look, if you’re somehow reading this and have a child to take to the movies, you could do worse. When the film throws caution to the wind and just allows itself to be a family-friendly action-adventure, it’s actually quite enjoyable. There’s a fight scene on the Brooklyn Bridge at the end that rivals anything seen in more traditionally adult cinema, and things are exciting enough when characters are creatively escaping from pursuers that the general bevvy of complaints against the film can be ignored. In addition, Louis C.K. surprises as the perfect voice actor, turning in a performance that has all of the inflection and emotion that kids love with doses of the cynical snark that made him famous. Unfortunately, the pros of THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS don’t even begin to outweigh the cons, and I can’t help but feel as if Universal Pictures is still generally content to coast on the immense returns of the MINIONS merchandising budget, leaving behind any real care for their animated properties in the process.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend