A dog named Max has a perfect life with his owner… until she brings home a new dog named Duke. Max doesn’t want to share her attentions, or worse: be the less favored pet. Duke doesn’t want to end up in the pound again. When neither will budge, they both end up on the mean streets of New York and will have to find a way to get along if they want to get home.
Many people have compared the idea behind The Secret Life of Pets to Toy Story. In broad strokes, the comparison is fair — the favorite toy/pet gets a rival for attention from their owner, tries to sabotage the newcomer resulting in them both becoming lost out in the world, and they have to work together to find their way home. But other that that general outline the films are very different.
That said, comparing the film to Toy Story will help demonstrate one of the main issues I had with the story. In Toy Story we get a chance to see the bond between Andy and Woody and then see Woody interacting well with the other toys. We get that in The Secret Life of Pets as well, between Max and his owner Katie, and then Max and the neighborhood pets. Very early on in both films the newcomer is introduced. Buzz crash lands on Andy’s bed and Duke is introduced into Katie’s home. It’s here that my biggest gripe with The Secret Life of Pets begins.
In Toy Story, Woody makes an effort to get along with clueless Buzz before gradually losing his cool and trying to get rid of him. Having Woody start off as leery but not antagonistic towards Buzz makes him more sympathetic. So when he begins to turn on Buzz eventually causing them both to become lost, now we’re rooting for him to get his act together and find a way to co-exist with Buzz and get back home.
However, in this film Max is belligerent to Duke from the beginning and vice-versa. Neither seems to make a real effort to get along and they both do some pretty nasty things to one another. By the time they get lost you don’t really like either of them. I never warmed to Max as much as Woody because the character didn’t earn the audience’s affection.
This ties in with a second major problem with the film — the whole first half was rushed. Everything was going too fast. We never got a chance to get to know the characters or much about the world they lived in. Toy Story excelled at this. The beginning of the film took it’s time to introduce everyone, and was especially good at showing us the way things worked in this world. In fact it took thirty minutes before we even got to Woody and Buzz getting lost. In the The Secret Life of Pets we’re rushed to that scene in half the time.
This rush to move on was worst on the new dog Duke. We never get a chance to really like him or even dislike him. His story gets short shrift. Late in the film the writers seemed to realize this and tried to shoehorn in an emotional arc for him, but even it is clumsily sped through and then quickly forgotten for the rest of the film.
So with the plot before they get lost so fast and forgettable, the story of getting home is where the filmmakers seem to have spent most of their creative capital. While this part of the film is more entertaining, it never reaches any great artistic heights. Potty humor abounds! (Remember the good old days when the potty humor we complained about was implied and not explicitly shown on screen?)
The plot bounces back and forth between Max and Duke trying to get home, and the neighborhood pets out looking for them. The story of the two dogs is the more interesting of the two, but only because of the introduction of a crazed bunny named Snowball who runs a gang of human-hating animals called the Flushed Pets. This storyline seems promising but is quickly relegated to side-story status as Max and Duke escape. The gang makes several appearances throughout the film, and are always more interesting than whatever scene was before them. Maybe it would have been better to flesh out this fun plot-line and have Max and Duke stick around longer trying to fit in rather than have them almost immediately leave so they can randomly roam the surprising humdrum streets of New York.
A very rushed story, characters we never get to invest in, potty humor out the wazoo (literally!), and a kind of boring road trip. At least it’s funny, right? Not as funny as you’d hope, actually. It’s fun. It’s funny. But I was expecting laugh out loud moments, and they were few and far between. Snowball the bunny is the source of most of the biggest laughs and he doesn’t get as much screen time as you’d like. Pops, a very old Basset Hound helping to look for Max, is easily the second most entertaining part of the film.
The animation, as usual for the big studios these days, is top notch. The city itself was very well done, if a little over the top in appearance sometimes. And I really liked the character designs. All were fun and interesting and nicely contrasted one another. Stealing the show again was Snowball. The animators captured his maniacal behavior perfectly.
Like the design of the city, the musical score by Alexandre Desplat was fun and well done, if a little over the top. It reminded me a lot of the old 1960s and 1970s Warner Brothers cartoons — a little too loud, a little too brash, but fun.
Most of the voice cast, like a lot of the film, was serviceable if not memorable. Louis C.K. as Max and Eric Stonestreet as Duke do fine jobs, but if they were replaced in a sequel would anyone notice? Jenny Slate stands out a bit more as Gidget. Dana Carvey, basically playing his Grumpy Old Man character from SNL, is a lot of fun as Pops. And Kevin Hart quite literally steals every scene he is in as Snowball.
While I was pretty hard on the film, The Secret Life of Pets isn’t necessarily bad. It’s just not very good either. I’ve seen a lot worse movies the last few years. But I’d prefer that this not be what studios aspire to either. It barely checks all the boxes for what it needs to do but never seems to try to excel at any of them. Illumination is still a young studio with a lot of potential. Hopefully they can learn some new tricks before they get too set in their ways.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?