MOVIE REVIEW: The Secret Life of Pets



After this website's zero-star review of the 2015 smash hit and brain-grating "Despicable Me" spinoff, the words "From the creators that brought you 'Minions'" do not inspire confidence as a selling point for "The Secret Life of Pets" from Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures. Though the bar was set tremendously low, the animated pet adventure has a superb amount of spunk and charm compared to last year's gibberish. With an actual point or two and the semblance of a narrative, "The Secret Life of Pets" deserves to score points with kids and adults.

Max (Louis C.K.) is a lovingly spoiled Jack Russell terrier hopelessly devoted to his altruistic single woman owner Katie (Ellie Kemper).  They live in a trendy apartment with a stunning view of a towering and stylized New York City and share all sorts of quality time together.  Max has a winning group of neighboring pet buddies, including the Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) with a crush on him and the indifferent tabby cat Chloe (Lake Bell).  When Katie adopts and brings home a second dog, the wildebeest-ish Newfoundland stray named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), Max now fears that he will have to compete for affection and attention.  He tries to counter Max’s sizable bullying by asserting his own authority. 

While out being dog-walked, the two competitors get separated from their leashes and de-collared by some alley gang cats (led by Steve Coogan).  Roaming without tags, the two are mistakenly pinched by animal control briefly only to be busted out by the rebel rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart).  The combustible street-wise leader introduces Max and Duke to an underworld of “flushed pets” that have chosen to turn their back on humans after becoming cast aside or ownerless.  When Gidget and Max’s friends realize he and Duke are gone, they set off to find them and recruit help in the form of a cantankerous predator red-tailed hawk named Tiberius (Albert Brooks) and a handicapped basset hound named Pops (Dana Carvey).  All have to find bravery and resourcefulness to get home again.    

The voice cast of “The Secret Life of Pets” is composed of a few inspired choices.  Being the hero of positivity counts as playing against type for the sarcastic comedian Louis C.K.  Channeling his inner Henery Hawk, Kevin Hart is the best exasperated miniature-sized blowhard in the business, live action or animated, and makes for a lively villain.  Those two stand out above Eric Stonestreet’s co-lead.   Further down the pecking order, anything Albert Brooks does in voice work will always pale in comparison to “Finding Nemo,” but Bobby Moynihan, Hannibal Burress, Slate, and Bell make for a pleasing ensemble mix of sidekicks and tag-alongs.  The only true annoyance is a tired Dana Carvey warble as the wily veteran. 

Cute characters aside, plenty of "The Secret Life of Pets" is an overload of zaniness.  It may all be whizzing fun in 3D with fan favorite voices slinging lines and jokes, but it can simply be too much. The creators (two directors and three writers) try too hard and clearly could not help but throw every single pickle of an idea into this one movie.  The simple and smart domestic premise suggested by the title (and advertised in its initial previews) of what pets do at home when their owners are away is spent in the first ten minutes. Without trying for more depth, the film is detonated into a semi-moronic pursuit-and-homecoming adventure that fills the other 80% of the film.  A slier challenge would have been to make the most of the smarter initial concept rather than blowing it up for manic energy for the sake of manic energy. 

What keeps “The Secret Life of Pets” entertaining is the redeeming measure of charisma.  Nothing is ever to a "Pixar Punch" level, yet the ever-present plucky pizzazz washes down the occasional preposterous stupidity with the right cooling chaser.  You could do far worse for family summer fun at the theater.  Now go home and hug that adorable pooch you left home from the movie theater.  He or she has been waiting for you.

LESSON #1: “RICKY” IS THE BEST NAME FOR A TRAGIC FALLEN COMRADE—If you adults don’t have a “Boyz 'N the Hood” flashback every time Kevin Hart’s Snowball wails for his lost goose buddy Ricky, we can’t be cool movie friends anymore.   

LESSON #2: WHAT PETS REALLY DO WHEN WE’RE NOT HOME—Contrary to the wild adventure laid out in “The Secret Life of Pets,” you would be surprised by the real-life examples of what pets actually do on their own at home.  Frankly, they do what we do: eat, sleep, hang around, explore, play, romance, scope out their surroundings and so on, just without supervision or boundaries.  None of them, well maybe the cats, are plotting your demise or the downfall of the human race.  

LESSON #3: PET OWNERSHIP IS SPECIAL—From the killjoy to the obvious, animal companionship and pet ownership is a beautiful thing.  After the adventure dies down, the film’s light tone aims to please.  That moxie paints the easy messages of people loving their pets and pets loving their people.