The Secret Life of Pets
Directed by Yarrow Cheney & Chris Renaud
The Secret Life of Pets makes its overarching thesis clear in its opening moments: if pets had anthropomorphic personalities, they’d be just as shitty as humans are. It’s completely at odds with what Disney and Pixar films have shown for decades, where pets are noble, adorable, and charmingly dumb. The animals in The Secret Life of Pets are still pretty dumb, but they have regular human frailties. Directors Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud have created a foil to the worst Pixar films.
Louis C.K. voices Max, a Jack Russell Terrier who belongs to Katie (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Ellie Kemper). Max and the other pets in the neighborhood break out of their apartments and socialize with each other when their owners are out at work. Jenny Slate voices Gidget, a Pomeranian who’s secretly infatuated with Max. Lake Bell plays Chloe, an overweight housecat, and Bobby Moynihan and Hannibal Buress play a Pug and a Dachshund, respectively.
Max has a steady routine where he waits for Katie to return while the other pets meet up at his apartment. Then one day Katie brings home a new dog, a hulking Newfoundland named Duke who looks like a bent over Fozzy Bear (Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet). Initially jovial, Duke starts to take over the place, so Max decides to get rid of him.
Of course, Max’s plan doesn’t work out as expected, and both he and Duke end up lost and on the streets. There they run into Snowball, a little white rabbit voiced by Kevin Hart. Snowball is the leader of a radical separatist group of abandoned animals who hope to overthrow the human race. Max and Duke have to find their way back home while also avoiding Snowball, who hates their desire for domesticity.
As Pixar movies have sunk in quality in the Finding Dorie-era, The Secret Life of Pets tries to present characters who aren’t just warm and fuzzy creatures. Classic Pixar films like Toy Story and WALL-E had some bite to them, but the studios recent run of sequels and half-baked releases like The Good Dinosaur have been overly syrupy and falsely heartwarming. There are few warm moments in The Secret Life of Pets, and none that should make you cry unless you suffer from overactive tear ducts. It’s a refreshing change to be able to just laugh at these dumb animals and not feel manipulated into crying about them.
That said, the search for home plot is as old as the movies and there’s nothing particularly inspired about this interpretation. The film’s strength lies with its voice cast. Louis C.K. is often written off as a one-note actor, someone who’s great at playing a version of himself but not much else. But as a hyperactive dog he does a believable job, while still retaining enough of his normal deadpan wit. Jenny Slate is also excellent as Gidget, his unacknowledged admirer. Her squeaky voice and zany attitude fit the character perfectly. Kevin Hart’s Snowball is a let-down though; the character has the energy that Hart is known for in his standup, but never has strong enough material to work with. Most of the jokes about him center on the fact that he’s a cute little bunny who’s also a bad ass. It’s funny once or twice, but the joke wears thin. Moynihan and Buress are sadly underused, and Stonestreet never really gets a chance to shine as Duke.
Still, there are plenty of funny moments in the film, and Louis C.K. proves that he could probably lead a more mainstream effort. Even though it’s not completely successful, The Secret Life of Pets is a necessary corrective to the most recent overly-sentimental films Pixar has recently pumped out. It remains to be seen whether its irreverence is the start of a trend or just a fluke.