The Secret Life of Pets
The question of what pets do when their owners aren’t around is finally answered in Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney’s The Secret Life of Pets.
Obviously this film isn’t a documentary or anything like that but I thought it’d be a good opening line. This film adopts the Toy Story mould of having something that most people have around them every day in one way or another and giving it a secret life that exists when nobody is looking.
It worked really well in Toy Story so the same logic should be easily applied to domesticated animals. In general this works well enough with some engaging characters and an understanding of animal behaviour that will seem familiar to people watching. It can be fun to add a layer of humanity to the random way a cat acts or a dog thinking their owner is never going to return when they leave for work.
Our entry into this idea comes through Max (Louis C.K.); a favourite pet who has his world upended when his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper) brings home another dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet) who makes Max feel threatened in the perfect rut he has carved out for him.
Max is a fairly one note character at the best of times and doesn’t really go through a defined arc that carries the film. He is caught up in the plot but I never felt that any effort was made to establish any depth to his character. The same is true for Duke who has an implied tragic backstory that never quite has the impact that it should.
It’s easy to make the Toy Story comparison because replacing Max with Woody and Duke with Buzz gets you exactly the same situation. The major difference here is that there wasn’t an awful lot of time devoted to establishing the rivalry between Max and Duke. It was definitely there but the jealousy from Max was very much manufactured since he had no real reason to feel that way.
In Toy Story, Andy was visibly excited by the arrival of Buzz because he was the hottest toy of the moment and he neglected Woody as a result but Katie doesn’t neglect Max with Duke around. She is a devoted owner who wants to ensure that her dogs live together in harmony. I hate to keep comparing this to Toy Story but it’s far too easy to draw a link. There is a clear difference here because as far as Andy knows his toys aren’t alive where Katie is responsible for the care of two living things so neglecting one of them isn’t exactly something she can get away with without coming across as a horrible person.
In any case the rivalry between Max and Duke is quickly discarded because they have bigger problems. They are separated from their dog walker and have their collars taken by alley cats so have to stay one step ahead from Animal Control or find themselves in the pound. We never see it but according to Duke it isn’t a nice place to be.
Along the way they come across a group of animals who have cast off the shackles of ownership led by a maniacal bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart). He’s your standard cute looking character with a violent streak and a lot of attitude but he’s a lot of fun. Hart fully commits to the insanity of the performance and creates a good character who functions as both a serious villain and a nuisance depending on what the plot requires.
The other characters are a mixed bag. For me the most interesting by far was Gidget (Jenny Slate); a cute looking dog with a hidden killer instinct who is motivated to find Max because she is in love with him. Having her established as being fairly useless before her full potential is revealed is really effective. A murderous Hawk named Tiberius (Albert Brooks) trying to suppress his killer instincts is also worthy of note. The rest of them make for some entertaining window dressing but don’t have significant roles.
In terms of storytelling the film struggles to fill the running time with content. Most of it moves along nicely but there are moments where the narrative slows to a crawl in an attempt to manufacture character development. It all feels so forced and makes me think that a shorter film might have been a much tighter experience. If attempts had been made to flesh out some of the characters beyond the surface level traits then this might not have been as big of a problem.
Despite that there are some entertaining set piece moments and the use of animals makes for some memorable sequences involving them just getting around things that need humans to operate. It’s clear that some effort was put in to make use of the concept. The animation is also beautiful with the animal designs being impressively stylised and Manhattan being a vibrant and colourful location. It’s a stunning movie to look at.
A solid film that uses the concept well and provides some decent entertainment. It’s far too easy to make comparisons to Toy Story but it does distance itself from that film well enough. The characters aren’t especially well developed but some of them are memorable nonetheless and some clever set pieces makes good use of the animals getting around a human world idea.
- a fun concept
- some interesting characters
- clever set pieces
- some underdeveloped characters and story points
- uneven pacing