Since last summer, moviegoers have been bombarded with trailers for The Secret Life of Pets, the latest project from Illumination Entertainment, AKA The House That Minions Built. The film asks one very simple question: What shenanigans do our pets get up to when we’re not around? It’s a conceit not unlike the one in Pixar’s Toy Story, and fittingly, Secret Life winds up borrowing a whole bunch of story beats from it. That’s not necessarily a problem, though, as this snappy little jaunt through the cartoon world of talking animals is light as a feather and energetic enough to constantly keep things moving.
The story is told through the perspective of a Jack Russell terrier named Max (Louis CK). Max lives in New York City with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper), and all he does while she’s out all day is wait patiently by the door for her to come home. One day, she comes home with a new pet: a Chewbacca-sized shelter rescue named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Max instantly resents Duke, and hatches a scheme to get rid of him. This soon backfires and leaves both stranded on the streets of New York, pitting them against the city’s dogcatchers, as well as a gang of abandoned pets led by psychotic bunny rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart). Meanwhile, dog-next-door Gidget (Jenny Slate) puts together a team of her neighbor pets (including a hawk voiced by Albert Brooks) to bring Max and Duke home.
Unburdened by Zootopia’s questions of prejudice, the accidental xenophobia of Angry Birds and the mental health crisis at the heart of Finding Dory, Secret Life does not have a single thing on its agenda besides having fun. Sure, it has its share of characters with abandonment issues, but it’s nothing that you wouldn’t find in any film that features…y’know… characters. This film’s conflicts are simple, and its themes universal enough for even the youngest moviegoers. ‘Tame’ would be the perfect word to describe it. Secret Life is a film that refuses to upset the social apple cart, because it’s too busy being a whirlwind of goofs. And that’s totally fine.
Illumination’s chief director Chris Renaud takes every opportunity to plant his heroes into any number of slapstick hijinks. From a highly improbable car chase to a Rube Goldberg-esque jaunt across the rooftops of New York, Secret Life is in a constant state of eye-popping motion. The highlight of the film is a song & dance number that takes place inside a hot dog factory. It’s a bizarre and unexpected delight in a movie ostensibly about two dogs just trying to get home, but it works because the film has made no bones about existing in anything resembling the real world.
If I’m being honest, Secret Life could have used a bit more of this brand of strange. I’m not asking for a kids’ movie to go full steam ahead into Sausage Party territory, but splitting the difference and meeting adults halfway with more weirdness would’ve been a welcome treat. Snowball gets the most mileage in this department. The way Kevin Hart plays him, Snowball takes extreme delight in absolutely everything, from explaining his megalomaniacal plans in gruesome detail to assaulting humans with carrots like a pint-sized Clive Owen. He gets to be a bit much toward the end, but then that’s par for the course where Kevin Hart is concerned.
(Speaking of Sausage Party, I have a feeling I’ll be the one telling you all about that here in a couple months. Talking sausages were once talking animals, after all…)
That’s pretty much all there is to it. There are sight gags aplenty, new critters to meet around every corner, and a couple of the on-the-nose music cues you’d expect from a movie like this. Surprisingly, though, none of it ever becomes grating or overstays its welcome. The Secret Life of Pets is exactly the film the trailers have been selling us, which leaves this review feeling like kind of a moot point. If the ads have appealed to you in any way, then chances are you or a child you know will get a kick out of this film.
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