Film Review: 'The Secret Life of Pets'
Hey, Universal! Fetch me a good, original movie.
What the doggie brought back home is The Secret Life of Pets, an uplifting breath of fresh air that answers the one question every child has asked at least once: "what do pets do when we're not home?"
According to the instant animated classic, the answer is that all the pets start talking, do things around the house they're not supposed to, and gang up to go outside and explore the town. Writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio up the ante by making the Big Apple their stomping grounds - an appropriate place for maximum pet concentration.
So what results from the adventures of dogs Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), the hulking, shaggy Duke (Eric Stonestreet, Modern Family), and fluffy white Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate, coming off a voicing role in Zootopia), is an all-encompassing and massively entertaining journey through the wheelings and dealings of house pets while their owners are off at work.
This is by the same team responsible for Despicable Me and the ensuing Minions craze, a franchise trademarked by its goofy eccentricity which, if you ask me, gets old fast. Thankfully, Pets instead opts for a smarter, more sophisticated story. Max lives happily with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper, a.k.a. Kimmy Schmidt) in their Manhattan apartment, but her dog-lover side gets the best of her when she adopts a stray Duke, a brute force of a dog that bullies around Max while Katie's away. So we're awfully endeared to poor little Max, who's been with Katie since he was a puppy.
But the two will have to reconcile fast when they, while outside and about, are kidnapped by animal control, then rescued by a fluffy white rabbit, Snowball (Kevin Hart, in a guffaw-inducing performance) and his group of mean-mugging animals. Turns out the group is part of a underground former-pet society that resents all humans, and Max and Duke are forced against their will to join. It's effectively unsettling so many cute and cuddly animals in a cult-like gathering, but the brooding effect works when they play opposite to the bustling and colorful city world above ground.
Above that ground, Gidget, who's absolutely smitten by Max, sets out to find him and rallies the gang of other pets in Katie's apartment complex to help - including a gray fat cat, Chloe (Lake Bell), who acts exactly as you would expect a talking cat would; nonchalant, sarcastic, and with a touch of arrogance. In fact, one of the most memorable aspects about Pets is how the stereotypes of each pet animal and their respective owners are reflected so precisely within them - the pets even harp on each other about dog people versus cat people. Yes, even the pets agree that cat people are weird, and dog people are oddly social.
That's just one of many example Pets is so imaginatively clever in its world-building that's it's got an undeniable charm to it, making Max and Duke's escapades all the more entertaining. Every square inch of New York City has some quirky or vital detail to it, creating a rich animated universe. In this vibrant setting, the animals and their individual personalities clash in dramatic and often hilarious ways - dogs versus cats, of course, are center stage, although there's even more to be found in this dense and thorough movie. Unlike other sub-par animated offerings, Pets feels incredibly complete, which is little said of anything outside of Pixar movies.
Also supporting the pet show are numerous stars behind the voices. There's Albert Brooks (fresh from playing Marlin in Finding Dory) as Tiberius, a hardly-tamed bird of prey that withholds its predatory instincts long enough to help out Gidget and company. There's also Hannibal Buress who voices Buddy, a wiener dog with a laissez faire attitude and a knack for thinking out of the box. The talent depth in the film enriches Pets further and makes it come alive with character and distinction.
Apart from the value of pets in our lives and how much our love means to them and to us, Pets lacks a more overarching theme or message, and so the film doesn't reach very far beyond that point. But there is something to be said about beauty lying in simplicity; Pets prioritizes being a lovingly crafted story that maintains smiles from beginning to end. What's more, we can't wait to see Max and the gang again - which is something we hardly say about original movies.
Good boy, Universal!
Rated PG. 87 minutes.
Written by Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio.
Directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney.
Starring Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, and Jenny Slate.