“The film’s manic energy winds up becoming more of a drag in the third act”

by Steve Pulaski

Even when I was just four years old, after getting my first ever pet – an orange and white, domestic shorthair cat named Simba – I couldn’t help but question what I thought were two of the biggest mysteries regarding pets: what goes through their minds when their owner leaves the house and when their owner brings home another pet? One could consider these two part of the thesis statement of Illumination Entertainment’s (the same studio who brought you Minions) new film The Secret Life of Pets.

Aside from also giving you rampant self-product placement for their current and future films, such as Sing coming in December, as little Easter eggs, The Secret Life of Pets shows the lives of various Manhattan house-pets when their owners all leave for work in the morning. The central focus is around a spoiled terrier named Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), who loves his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) so much that everything stops for him those eight hours when she’s away. In the meantime, he spends most of his time with other pets, such as Gidget (Jenny Slate), his neighbor who has an insatiable crush on him, the overweight tabby cat Chloe (Lake Bell), the rambunctious Mel (Bobby Moynihan), the laidback weiner-dog Buddy (Hannibal Buress), and the ambitious parakeet Sweet Pea (Tara Strong).

The Secret Life of Pets
Directed by
Yarrow Cheney & Chris Renaud
Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart
Release Date
8 July 2016
Steve’s Grade: C

One day, when Katie returns home to Max, she brings a gigantic new dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a sloppy, ill-behaved stray, with her. Max is understandably hurt and angry at this move, and Duke doesn’t much care for Max’s life of privilege either, until the two desperately need one another after Max’s plan to ambush Duke on their daily walk goes awry. Just before being sent to the pound, the two are rescued by a rabbit named Snowball (Kevin Hart), who runs an underground ring of reject, lost, or mean pets.

The Secret Life of Pets falls into the same category as most other Illumination Entertainment films in that they’re manic and predicated more-so upon basic entertainment rather than some kind of deeper, more enriching subtext. That’s, of course, never a bad thing; I’d argue with the race/gender parable found in Disney’s Zootopia this year and the disability theme in Pixar’s Finding Dory just weeks ago, audiences are due for an animated film they can just sink into and enjoy for the sake of entertainment.

In some respects, The Secret Life of Pets is that movie. In others, however, it’s not. For one, this film is a classic case of “trailer fail,” meaning much of the film’s most amusing sequences existed in the trailer, which I’m willing to bet most potential moviegoers have seen by this point. That film promised a more laidback and reserved film about the daily activities of pets rather than this massive, grandscale adventure that takes place on the crowded streets and slimy sewers of Manhattan.

This is a film that would’ve worked much better had it been less cluttered by plot and more focused on small-scale adventures within the apartment complex; perhaps even an anthology of all the pets in that building that would come together and wrap-around in a bold way. The film’s manic energy winds up becoming more of a drag in the third act than it would’ve had the film been predicated on a much smaller playing field. The marginal saving grace comes in the form of the film’s opening and closing sequences, which profile the pets’ activities as soon as their owners leave and return home, respectively.

The Secret Life of Pets would be the same movie with the same level of enjoyment if you waited until it came to DVD and streaming, but good luck trying to convince your little-one that after they’ve been bombarded with commercials and advertisements for the film since May. It’s the film that I’m sure many parents will feel obligated to take their kids to see, when really, they’d probably do better with a second viewing of one of the two aforementioned animated films for things they might’ve missed the first time around.

NOTE: I did indeed see The Secret Life of Pets in 3D and am hear to confirm, unsurprisingly, the 3D adds no dimension or anything additional to the film except a surcharge.