Pixar made history — and the first feature-length film animated entirely through CGI — with a simple premise: “What if toys had secret lives of their own that played out when no one was around?” Twenty years, countless CGI-animated kids’ films, and so many animation studios (Illumination Entertainment among them) later, and we’re brought full circle with a similar sort of premise: “What if pets had secret lives of their own that played out when no one was around?”
The Secret Life of Pets begins with Max (Louis C.K.), a small dog who was adopted as a newborn by Katie (Ellie Kemper). The two of them have been together in a loving pet/human relationship for quite some time, until Katie’s generosity compels her to pick up another dog in need of a loving home. Enter Duke, a massive dog voiced by Eric Stonestreet.
If you’re a pet owner, you can probably guess how well the two dogs get along at first.
Duke has the undisputed size and strength advantage, so he can effectively bully Max into getting his way as much as he has to. But Max has the home field advantage — He knows how to work Katie and the surrounding area to suit his needs, and he knows that any collateral damage will more likely get blamed on Duke. But it’s interesting to note that Duke only pushes Max around because he very badly needs a loving home and he can’t bear to get thrown out onto the streets again. Just like Max, back when he was only a puppy living in a cardboard box. Yet Max never raises this point, either because he’s forgotten how things were like back then or he’s just that desperate to not get thrown out in favor of Duke (like that’s ever going to happen).
While all of this is going on, we’re treated to an extended version of the teaser. As a sequence in the film and as a teaser, it works beautifully. It’s funny, it’s thoughtful, and it perfectly delivers on the concept of “the secret life of pets.” And in all fairness, there are a few other scenes like that in the movie, putting a new spin on familiar pet cliches to joke about what mischief they might be getting into when everyone’s looking the other way.
As for the characters themselves, Max perfectly embodies the ideal canine companion who’s loyal to a fault and loves his human unconditionally, even if he isn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. Similarly, Duke is a beast with tremendous heart and loaded with physical strength, even if he has a brain the size of a chickpea. In the supporting cast, we’ve got Gidget (Jenny Slate), a romantic little Pomeranian with an outrageous lack of self-control; Mel and Buddy (respectively voiced by Bobby Moynihan and Hannibal Burress), a couple of hyperactive canine stereotypes; and Pops (Dana Carvey), an elderly hound who has to get around on wheels because his back legs are paralyzed.
As for the supporting characters who aren’t dogs, the highlight is probably Chloe (Lake Bell). She’s aloof and cynical, as cats so often are, but the film is always taking the piss out of her in ways that bring some great comedy (two words: laser pointer). Albert Brooks gets a prominent supporting role as Tiberius, a hawk who has to struggle against his innate urge to hunt and kill smaller animals. So yes, it’s basically Marlin voicing Bruce. There’s also Sweet Pea (who only speaks in whistles and chirps, provided by voice actress extraordinaire Tara Strong), a tiny little parakeet with a ton of attitude. Rounding out our cast of supporting protagonists is Norman (voiced by co-director Chris Renaud), who primarily gets laughs because of his short memory.
Listing off the voice talents, you may have noticed a suspicious lack of marquee names. In fact, some of the choices are outright puzzling — Louis C.K. providing the voice for a Jack Russell sounds like a ridiculous idea on paper. But in practice, the voice matches the character beautifully, and it’s like that for every single one of the characters I’ve mentioned (there are others I haven’t mentioned, but we’ll get to them later). These filmmakers put a clear emphasis on finding the actors who were right for the parts, instead of the actors who would sell tickets, and it’s great to see that in a genre where the latter happens far too often. It does a lot toward making the characters likable, selling their interactions with each other, and delivering the jokes in a way that brings a few laughs.
When the movie focuses on these characters, their interactions with each other, their relationships with their owners, and whatever’s going on with them that humans aren’t privy to, it works beautifully. But alas, the film just couldn’t stop there.
Getting back to Max and Duke, their conflict comes to a head. To make a long story short (too late!), the two of them lose their collars and get scooped up by Animal Control. And that’s when we meet… Snowball, voiced by Kevin Hart.
I was never a fan of Kevin Hart, and this film serves as a fine example of why. In everything that I’ve ever seen from Hart, he comes off as shrill, annoying, and self-aggrandizing, like he got famous through sheer force of will rather than any honest comic talent. A 21st-century Chris Tucker, if you will.
In this case, Snowball leads a group of scorned pets who’ve organized a rebellion against humans after being abandoned by their masters. (Again, this is not unfamiliar ground with regard to the Toy Story films). And Hart plays this role like he’s trying to eat the microphone. The character is loud, shrill, stupid, and aggressively unfunny. He’s just a tiny little ball of faux gangster egomania and impotent rage, without a trace of the heart or clever pet-related humor seen in the other main characters. Snowball and his entire operation are so bafflingly moronic, so void of effective comedy, and so utterly soulless that they feel entirely out of place in this movie.
Then we have the visuals. This movie was very clearly made for 3D, given all the obnoxious and totally unnecessary shots of random stuff flying toward the screen. This is naturally most prominent during the big action set pieces, all loud, hyperkinetic, and loaded with stunts that range from improbable to impossible. It’s nothing but brainless empty spectacle, when I’d much rather be watching the more poignant, humorous, and visually clever stuff involving the pets just being pets.
The most obvious example is of course the climax, which bears some uncanny and disturbing similarities to the climax of Finding Dory. I know that film only came out a few weeks ago, so it’s probably just a coincidence, but even so. Damn.
But for me, the ultimate example comes when Max and Duke go raiding for food. And partway through, we’re hit from completely out of nowhere by a massive song and dance number in which hot dogs dance around a fantasy paradise, singing along to “We Go Together” from Grease. If you’ve actually seen the film, please leave a comment telling me whether or not that really happened. I’m still not entirely convinced that it wasn’t some kind of nightmare I had after somehow falling asleep partway through the movie.
(Side note: Oh, and the film is preceded by a short about the Minions. Because of course the Minions had to be involved somehow, for fuck’s sake.)
The Secret Life of Pets is too obnoxious for its own good. The pet jokes and the main characters are all beautifully on point, but they get drowned out by all the loud, annoying, brainless, soulless, hyperactive shit getting thrown at the screen. There’s way too much useless filler surrounding the legitimately solid idea at the heart of this movie.
There’s no way I can recommend this, especially not while Finding Dory is still in theaters and doing well.