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.