Sure to supplant Finding Dory atop the box office, The Secret Life of Pets is a worthy and enjoyable successor to share the rotating crown of family favourites that have overtaken the multiplex as of late. Talking animals seem to be all the rage this year whether its the anthropomorphized metropolis in Zootopia, the various characters from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, or the fish and fellow sea creatures of Dory, the domesticated animals of Pets manage to fit easily into the trend with great humour and energy. Plus, it’s got tremendous voice talent who create a cast of characters that will surely become beloved by young fans everywhere.
It’s not a new idea, lost pets trying to make their way home. Indeed, The Secret Life of Pets might best be described as Toy Story with animals; what do our dogs, and cats, and birds, and lizards, et al do when their owners aren’t around? Sometimes though, a movie’s success is all about the execution and not the content, and if you’ve enjoyed the past works of Illumination Entertainment, Pets fits comfortably in their wheelhouse with an emphasis on gags, quirky characters, and a careful balance of jokes aimed at the kids and ones meant to go over their heads to their parents.
The plot finds the wonderful life of beloved dog Max (Louis C.K.) thrown out of whack when his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) brings home a great big slobbering stray named Duke (Eric Stonestreet) who looks like a cross between Barklay from Sesame Street and the titular troublemaking mutt from the Beethoven series. Max doesn’t like this upset to his perfect living situation, and quickly plots to rid himself of Duke, but when the pair get lost and separated from the dog walker, they end up being pursued Warriors-style through the streets of New York by ruthless dog catchers, a gang of stray cats, and the revolutionary, anti-owner forces lead by the mad bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart).
It’s a forgone conclusion just how everything will come up in the end so far as Max and Duke, their journey home, and whether they can live together peaceably with Katie, so it’s up to co-directors Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud to make that compelling. Pets constitutes Cheney’s first feature, but Renaud brings a wealth of experience through the Despicable Me films and The Lorax, so together they’re able to create something that’s familiar, but just fresh enough to keep all quarters entertained. It follows the buddy movie tropes to perfection; the path from arch-rivals to bosom buddies is well-worn, but it can still delight.
In addition, there was a dark undercurrent to the film as well, which may likely go over the heads of small children, but for their parents it adds fascinating shade. Albert Brooks voices Tiberius, a hawk that helps Max’s friends, particularly his would-be girlfriend Gidget (voiced by Jenny Slate), track the pooch across the city, but Tiberius is clearly aware that he can, and frankly wants to, eat just about any other member of the fellowship. Snowball’s rebellion makes some human resistance look tame by comparison with his oddball collection of discarded cats, dogs, pigs, rodents, snakes, lizards and spiders. The film’s climax also has real stakes, even though the action in the end is so over the top that the movie almost, ahem, jumps the shark.
If you get that reference, you’ll probably get the meaning of a scene where Max and Duke gorge themselves on sausages in a sequence that seems more like an acid trip than an all you can eat buffet. The silliness of singing sausages (an unintentional plug for Sausage Party coming later this summer?), got the kids chuckling, but the adults were laughing harder at the implicit meaning. In the next scene though, we get Duke’s sad back story, and although Cheney and Renaud are either unwilling or unable to hit the emotional high notes that Pixar could reach given similar material, it was a reminder that Pets is grounded in something more than the desire to be wacky.
Special credit goes to the voice cast. Louis C.K. and Stonestreet are an unexpectedly good combination that manage to avoid the typical trap of animated films by playing the characters big. Part of the reason for that is because Pets doesn’t make the story all about Max Vs Duke, and although Duke’s kind of a jerk in the beginning, the script doesn’t let Max get away with being a bigger jerk to Duke in return once he gets the upper hand. It’s a nice lesson for the kids out there that being mean to someone that’s mean to you is not a good strategy for life.
Of course the real star of this thing is Snowball. Voiced by Hart with maniac gleefulness and an animal inferiority complex at levels not seen since The Brain from Animaniacs, expect Snowball to be a star on par with the Minions, the subject of future short films and other spin-offs. Snowball is the perfect marriage of visual and voice talent, and while the other main characters have to be more reserved, Hart gets to chew the animated scenery with Snowball’s big buck teeth. Whether it was his lament for the Ricky, the legendary former leader of the so-called “Flushed Pets”, or gleefully chasing down Max and Duke for their betrayal of the cause, you can’t say that Hart isn’t having a great time in the large fuzzy feet of Snowball.
Aside from the zany though, the real pleasure of The Secret Lives of Pets may be in recognizing their own pets behaviour in the on-screen characters. Whether its subtle disinterest of Chloe the cat, the nonstop peppiness of Gidget, or Max patiently waiting by the door for Katie’s inevitable return, it seems that the animators and filmmakers are pet-lovers themselves and were just as interested in capturing that nuance as they were in having wacky times with the animals doing stuff that would not be out of place in a Looney Tunes short.
But it’s the fine balance that makes Pets so enjoyable, as opposed to, say, the Minions short that preceded Pets, where stepping in doggy doodoo is considered the height of comedy. Not even the kids were laughing at that one. Pets meanwhile had big laughs, and some feels, but the emphasis was definitely on the comedy. Still, whether you’re a dog person, cat person, lizard person, or whatever, there’s something here for everyone.