Review: The Secret Life of Pets

Review: The Secret Life of Pets

With a title like The Secret Life of Pets, one might expect some grand revelation of what pets think and do when humans aren't looking. Because of this, I went in looking forward to pets getting the Toy Story treatment. What I got instead was a mixed bag of not-so-funny sequences and nearly empty bits. Very little lies beneath the surface here, which is a shame because there was definite potential for more. 

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The film starts with Max (voiced by Louis CK), a terrier who serves as our de facto protagonist. He dutifully waits for his owner, Katie (voiced by Ellie Kemper), to return from work every day, wondering why it is she always leaves. One day, Katie adopts another dog, Duke (voiced by Eric Stonestreet), which makes Max jealous. After some confrontation, Duke tricks Max into traveling out into the city, where they are eventually attacked by wild cats. 

They are then rescued by a diminutive bunny named Snowball (voiced by Kevin Hart). In order to gain credibility with Snowball and his gang, they convince him they are stray dogs. When their act isn't all that convincing, Snowball threatens to not let them go. Several bits followed as they try to get back home safely. Eventually their rag tag bunch of friends from their neighborhood band together to help them make it back in one piece. 

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As I write this, I am reminded of how thin the plot really is. I kept thinking, 'is this really it?' I kept genuinely hoping there would be more than just some combination of 'pets miss humans,' 'pets in peril' and 'pets on the road.' The film is almost totally preoccupied with action/chase sequences, physics and physical comedy at the expense of creating some underlying message or unifying themes. Given the differences between the pets on screen and some of the situations they are put in, it is a shame the filmmakers didn't do more.

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One place the film actually does shine is its beautiful recreation of New York City. The cityscapes that serve as its backdrop are really quite special, but not much else moves the needle. In a film employing the vocal talents of Louis CK and Hannibal Burress, the intermittent laughs earned by Kevin Hart's Snowball are the disappointing high points. 

It is possible that I have just become spoiled at this point. Pixar consistently sets the bar quite high for the genre. Disney's Zootopia is one of the very best films of the year. Animated films have been redefined in recent years and audiences have just come to expect more. It is not enough anymore to just have cute animals, slapstick jokes and a big marketing budget. In order to really be heralded, you have to offer something a little more thoughtful. Next to its peers, The Secret Life of Pets feels as small as Snowball. 

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