By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
Illumination Entertainment’s The Secret Life of Pets shows that life does not have to be a dog eat dog world. The Jack Russell Terrier Max (Louis C.K.) gets his world upturned when his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper) decides to adopt another dog, a massive Wookie-sized Newfoundland named Duke. Both want the human’s affection and Max’s jealousy is almost warranted. The larger of the two thinks he can have the run of the place, and tensions only rise until they are forced to work together.
After an incident at the park where they fight for alpha dog status and lose their tags, the two are chased by animal control and a crazy underground world of displaced pets. The rabbit, Snowball (Kevin Hart) leads this motley gang and he’s dangerous! As the trailers suggest, he very nearly steals the movie and his relationship with the two canines is only that of an enemy, because they are recognized as domesticated.
Once Gidget (Jenny Slate), a Pomeranian, realizes Max is missing, she recruits the building’s resident pets to go find him. She’s aware of the rivalry between Max and Duke, and surprisingly, does not fear for the worse. It’s like writers Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio did not want to go down the route of having the two canines brutally fighting it out. Interestingly, Duke gets the idea to get Max captured, if not lost in the big city. The story takes place in New York, where shady business can be conducted if people know where to look.
Fortunately for Max, he has a guardian angel. Gidget pines for him (the reasons are never fully explained) and manages to recruit a fat tabby-cat Chloe (Lake Bell) — who could probably challenge Garfield in an eating contest — hyperactive pug Mel (Bobby Moynihan), easy-going dachshund Buddy (Hannibal Buress), and “Top Gun” parakeet Sweet Pea (Tara Strong) to find him. They need help from Tiberius (Albert Brooks), a hawk, and if this all-star ensemble is not enough, they have to get help from the don of all animals in this neighbourhood (Greenwich?), Pops (Dana Carvey), to figure out where Max and Duke went. For such a film featuring many animals littered in the background, I half wondered if the pigeons have their own organization. I would have laughed out loud hard if a certain group of commando penguins made an appearance, but just who controls their appearances is from a different studio.
While this movie is fun to watch because of the energetic sequences near the end, the story does not hit the same notes as Illumination’s other products. There’s a message about how animal neglect can lead to aggressive behaviour but not everyone is going to catch on to that when the main plot is about two dogs needing to look out for each other than vie for a human’s affection. This particular conflict is very familiar. Some people say this movie is like Toy Story. Unlike the PIXAR film, the tale here feels very busy. There are ten characters to give screen-time to. I would have liked a bit of West Side Story influence to give this movie a sense of how life in New York is divided into communities. When the two canines can not get along, just how they handle themselves outdoors with others of their kind needs broadening.
There’s enough light-hearted material to chuckle at, but none of the hilarity matches that of Despicable Me. The Minions (in the first two films) are hard to beat. The best moments are from the trailer, and to maintain each animal’s individualism when their owners are away might have been very tough to maintain. To see them come together (cats and birds working together? oh my!) delivers, perhaps, a different message. Every animal species can get along, no matter what their primal instinct tells them. Tiberius is interesting since he had to control his urges to eat half the animals that were around him. However, I had to cringe at the musical montage when Max and Duke find a particular meat factory and binge. I love the movie Grease, and to see one particular song used in vain was not successfully achieved.
There’s no emotional payoff for this film and if I was to rank this studio’s many animated films from best to worst, this one is sitting right in the middle.
2½ Bites out of 5