Movie Review: The Secret Life of Pets
By Ben Gruchow
July 14, 2016

Almost nothing at all actually happens on a plot level in The Secret Life of Pets, which is why it's both impressive and necessary that it provides the subtext that it does in order to stand out in any way it can. The movie consists of roughly 30 minutes’ worth of story augmented by stock characters, but in its heart lies a surprisingly consequential narrative about idealism and ideology and the speed and totality with which those things can end in disaster.

That sounds pessimistic for a family film, and I hasten to add that this is absolutely a movie from the mind of Despicable Me’s Chris Renaud: it's a brightly-lit, searingly-colorful, kinetic animated fantasy with a cast of characters seemingly modeled on amorphous blobby shapes, surrounded by architecture and infrastructure reminiscent of the Magic Kingdom’s Main Street and approximately as functional. The environment looks terrific, and there are a lot of little personality touches and flourishes that are just right. It’s a chipper, energetic movie that ends up doing about what we expect it to; I confess that I wished for more, and that’s fair because the movie insinuates grander goals to begin with.

In a stylized and rather period-nonspecific iteration of New York City live a building full of human and non-human tenants; we meet all of them in an opening montage that's simultaneously a neat introduction to a large cast and a clip show that runs about a minute too long: Max (Louis C.K.) lives with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper), and life is bliss. Every day she goes to work and he spends the day socializing with the building’s pets, which include Gidget (Jenny Slate), Chlöe (Lake Bell), Mel (Bobby Moynihan), Buddy (Hannibal Buress), and Sweet Pea (Tara Strong). Then, one day, Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet) a giant mixed breed that seems to be mostly Newfoundland. Bliss shattered, Max and Duke have an immediate dislike for each other, manifested in seemingly zero-sum acts of subterfuge. Things get more complicated when the two find themselves separated and lost in the below ground sewer system with a gang of “discarded” pets, now bent on overcoming the humans.

I don’t really have to say it: this is a snarky 2000s-era retelling of Toy Story, right down to the structure of the final act’s escalation of conflict. This is not the only thing it pilfers from - the evasion of Animal Control, central to several early- and mid-film action sequences, feels like a lift from last summer’s Shaun the Sheep Movie - but it’s certainly the most consequential of them. There are things that it apes more successfully, and things that it apes less successfully, but the shadow of its clear inspiration follows each scene faithfully.

The change in subject helps; pets have a much bigger bank of recognizably emotive behaviors to draw on than toys, and Renaud wastes no time in exploiting that weakness in us; the characters are drawn in soft, round lines to the point where we more or less get a feeling of cuddly affection even from those that are supposed to be more intimidating: a hawk named Tiberius (Albert Brooks) and especially Snowball (Kevin Hart), the ringleader of the discarded pets, a white-tailed rabbit who is conspicuously engineered to look cute and sound threatening. There is no universe in which this movie will not engender further affection by audience members who have a pet represented by a breed here, and no universe in which it will not engineer increased rates of pet adoption by its target audience. And I liked the little touches that the movie gave its characters, reinforcing their animal nature via behaviors and tics; it does help to reinforce the character instead of just the raw beats of the story.

There’s also nothing in the movie’s story that will teach its audience anything new about, well, the lives of pets: its most conspicuous lift from the Toy Story spirit is that the main characters more or less live for their humans. The meat of the movie lies in what it seems to be saying beneath the rather pedestrian story actions. During the first contentious interchanges between Rex and Duke, I felt a little let down; these scenes go to such pains to establish both characters as unsympathetically as you might dare to in the opening of a non-Pixar family film. The tactic seems to be not just to compete for Katie’s attention, but to subject the other character to total submission and misery. This is not something that existing dogs do as part of dominant behavior, so it falls at the feet of either the story or the theme to explain it. I was nonplussed.

Then it continues, with the introduction of Snowball and the discarded pets (referred to in the film as the Flushed Pets), and Rex and Duke pretending to be human-hating animals in order to be freed and being more or less forcibly recruited, and as Snowball leads them underground with a cry of revolution, something clicked into place for me: in its own way, the movie is exploring the perils of rigid idealism, and the wobbly line that separates pursuing an action to right a wrong from scorching the earth and making everything worse for everyone. I don’t think this is unintentional, or an instance of reading too deeply into incidental action. Everything in the first hour of the film naturally dovetails with the idea that the only reason any adversity is encountered is because the protagonists took the uncompromising route of total resistance or total domination, and logic reasserts itself once that tactic is abandoned.

That’s the implication, anyway. Certainly without this reading, The Secret Life of Pets is not only a less-interesting movie, but a problematic one; it works on the level of basic narrative and is a functional chase film, but the presence of such scorched-earth actions and such readiness to tease the concept of abject violence - this winks at the prospect of death more than most animated films, although there’s nothing on the level of contemporary Pixar here - leaves us with much more of a feeling that the movie lacks any other idea of where to go or how to cap off its premise. The final third of the movie, which contents itself with rudimentary action and forces a rough realignment of every character’s motivation onto the same wavelength for convenience, does not help to dispel this notion.

There are other things about the movie that don’t really work (like Rex and Duke’s relationship to each other, which is never really rounded off or built on beyond the basic points). There are scattershot fragments of world-building all over the place (the movie never seems sure of whether its nonhuman characters have awareness on the level of an animal or a human), and the cast reveals the trap that DreamWorks films fall into all the time of hiring seemingly random celebrity names for vocals, and little distinction or knowledge of voiceover-acting cadence brought to the characters (Brooks is the only one who seems to know the music as well as the words).

As if that’s not enough, there’s an entire out-of-left-field hallucinatory sequence two-thirds of the way through the film, involving hot dogs, that seems to have been cut in from another movie. It’s visually stimulating, but stops the narrative dead in its tracks. None of this matters all that much, though; it’s observations and mild criticisms in the face of a movie that does enough right enough of the time that we’re able to see how much better it could be, with just the slightest little push in this direction or that.