The Secret Life of Pets (2016)
90 min., rated PG.
Pixar’s “Finding Dory” and Disney Animation’s “Zootopia” have already won bragging rights as this year’s two best animated efforts, but Illumination Entertainment’s “The Secret Life of Pets” isn’t too far behind. It isn’t working on those films’ level, and that’s okay. Like 1995’s “Toy Story,” “The Secret Life of Pets” is very clever in its conception, asking the question: What do toys pets do when their owners are not home? Do they watch TV? Do they open the fridge and stare with their mouth watering at tonight’s dinner? Most likely, they’re just sleeping for those 8 hours we are gone, but just go with it. Though the story proper is slighter than one would like it to be, the anthropomorphic-animal hijinks are lively and entertaining, the sight gags and verbal jokes are highly amusing, and the whole thing moves at a clip rate and just charms the viewer into submission.
Ever since he was found on the streets of Manhattan and adopted, small terrier Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) loves his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). The two build such a bond over the years that Max can’t imagine anything ever changing that. When Katie goes to work, he socializes with his friends on all different in Katie’s apartment building, including soap opera-watching Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) who has feelings for Max. The happy life changes for Max when Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a big, shaggy rescue mutt who starts to take over. When Max feels threatened and has had enough, he tries to sabotage Duke but after some other circumstances, the two dogs get separated from the local dog-walker and must make the incredible journey back home. They’re not only tailed by Animal Control but eventually become pursued by a gang of now-undomesticated animals abandoned by their owners and living in the sewers to take orders from revolution leader Snowball (Kevin Hart), a buck-toothed, cotton-tailed bunny. Meanwhile, Gidget leads all of the pets from the building to find Max and Duke.
Directors Chris Renaud (2013’s “Despicable Me 2”) and Yarrow Cheney, along with screenwriters Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch and Cinco Paul, concocted such a simple yet inventive concept for “The Secret Life of Pets” that it’s a surprise no one thought of it sooner. Of course, a premise cannot carry an entire feature film, so when that idea does have to spring into a story, the adventure plot is maybe less special once Max and Duke hit the streets but still full of quick-witted, rather inspired details that deserve credit. The opening montage that checks in on every animal in the apartment building is most certainly a high point. There are jokes with retractable leashes and a dog’s penchant for chasing after bouncy balls and barking outside at squirrels. The filmmakers don’t forget about cats, either, and their obsession with boxes, mouse toys and laser pointers. Though heavily featured in the advertisements, there’s a fleeting, yet very funny, bit with a hoity-toity owner leaving his well-behaved poodle Leonard who quickly morphs into a head-banging metal fan. Everything with Pops (Dana Carvey), an old-timer Basset Hound on wheels, is also worth a chuckle every time.
In a large roll call of comedic voice talent, Louis C.K.’s vocal work as lap dog Max is likable and warm, and Eric Stonestreet has that innate puppy-dog charm in his voice as Duke. There are numerous standouts, including the vocally distinct Jenny Slate adorably exuberant as Gidget; Lake Bell, very funny as irritable, care-free cat Chloe; and Albert Brooks, not playing another clownfish but a predatory eagle named Tiberius who agrees not to eat Gidget and help her find her true love. On the villainous side, Kevin Hart is hilarious as scheming bunny Snowball, particularly when he loudly bursts into tears at the shrine of another “flushed pet,” a duck named Ricky. Despite the premise being about what the pets do when their owners aren't around, Ellie Kemper's comic talents are underused as human owner Katie (whose body is animated as almost freakishly slender), but her perpetually cheerful voice is always nice to hear.
“The Secret Life of Pets” might become a bit overly convoluted in its plotting, with a few too many antics, captures and escapes, and the predictable revelation of Duke’s former owner does not have the resonance it could have had. Whatever flaws the picture has are eclipsed by the bigger picture and its many delights. The opening moments, cued to Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York,” are energetic and swiftly animated, making for a nice introduction to Max and Katie. At its worst, the film is just really pleasant, and even then, there are little strange undercurrents around the edges. When Max and Duke make their way into a sausage factory, they engage in a memorably offbeat musical number of a certain “Grease” hit with the frolicsome meat casings; it's a digression so giddily infectious and yet so out of the ordinary. Also, continuing with the mindset of the “Cats & Dogs” films, cats are back to being slinky menaces to society, this time a skeleton-thin alley cat leader voiced by Steve Coogan. It then all ends on an upbeat note, starting with the foot-tapping aural pleasure of Bill Withers’ 1977 R&B song “Lovely Day.” Even if it may not endure—much like the rest of Illumination’s output (they are the home of the Minions)—“The Secret Life of Pets” is reasonably enjoyable as it plays out.