3.5 stars. Rated PG, for no particularly reason
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.8.16
There’s such a thing as trying too hard.
This film’s concept, as suggested by the hilarious preview we’ve been watching for the past several months, is irresistible. Everybody who owns a dog, cat, hamster — or whatever — wonders what our beloved critters get up to, while we’re away from home. Do they chew our shoes? Invade the pantry? Climb the drapes? Kick back and watch Animal Planet on the flat-screen TV?
If scripters Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch and Cinco Paul had delivered on that theme, The Secret Life of Pets would have been more emotionally satisfying. Alas, the aforementioned trailer — and film title — are a bit misleading. This story isn’t all that concerned with the secret lives of pets; it’s actually a scuffle between Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), a quick-witted terrier who has long been the sole companion of his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper); and newcomer Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a massive, fluffy, unruly mongrel she rescues one day from the local animal shelter.
Long accustomed to being the alpha dog, both at home and in his multi-story Manhattan apartment building, Max doesn’t take kindly to this intruder ... particularly when Duke shows little interest in sharing their territory. This struggle for dominance spills out onto New York’s mean streets, and soon involves a deranged bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart), who heads a massive, motley pack of abandoned animals calling themselves the Flushed Pets.
Snowball and his gang hate people, and they also hate pampered pets; the increasingly chaotic result turns into a slapstick collection of sight gags, some of which jump the shark (well, crocodile) to a disastrous degree. An interlude in a sausage factory defies description, particularly when it morphs into a musical sequence set to “We Go Together,” from Grease.
Along the way, the film loses what little heart it struggles to display, while also burying the all-important message: that people shouldn’t adopt pets, if they’ve no intention of keeping them. Instead, it’s a race to a manic finish line, with co-directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney apparently engaged in several rounds of Can You Top This?
Which is a shame. The lengthy prologue introduces us to a delightful set of pampered pets, each of whom could have been explored further. Too often, though, they become sidebar distractions to the outrageous antics of Snowball & Co.
Max and Katie have a loving relationship, and Max can’t think of a better way to spend each day, than by staring at the door until she returns home. A neighboring cat, the rather corpulent Chloe (Lake Bell), can’t understand such devotion; she prefers to play it ultra-cool ... except when confronted with anything resembling food.
Thanks to a carefully managed network of fire escapes and openable doors and windows — all overlooked by their various owners — Max and Chloe frequently pal around with canine buddies Mel (Bobby Moynihan), an energetic pug who loves to bark at squirrels; and Buddy (Hannibal Buress), a sarcastic dachshund with a fondness for getting his magic spot rubbed. Their little gang also includes a fearless budgie named Sweetpea, with occasional visits from Norman (Renaud), a guinea pig who long ago got lost in the apartment ventilation system, and can’t find his way back to his apartment.
These interactions are watched from a neighboring building by Gidget (Jenny Slate), a naïve but gutsy Pomeranian who worships Max from afar.
When Duke’s arrival messes up the dynamic, he and Max wind up stranded on the street, and absent their collars: both pooches now furry targets for prowling animal control officers. That’s on top of getting on the wrong side of Snowball and his aggressive crew.
Gidget seizes the initiative to become a hero, orchestrating the release of Max’s friends, in order to find and bring him home. This rescue party also gains two more recruits: Pops (Dana Carvey), an ancient basset hound who knows the city like the back of his wrinkled paw; and Tiberius (Albert Brooks), a lonely red-tailed hawk who has trouble keeping his talons in check, with so many small, furry lunches within range.
Gidget’s ongoing efforts to rally her reluctant troops are quite amusing, as are the clever means by which they traverse the city. Slate’s voice is whiny, high-pitched hilarity all by itself, and she makes the Pomeranian a thoroughly delightful character. The same is true of Brooks, whose Tiberius gets all the best (and driest) one-liners; he’s very funny.
Spending time with Gidget and her group is charming. Alas, Renaud and Cheney far more frequently cut away to the crazed antics of Snowball and his motley crew: notably Tattoo (Michael Beattie), a pot-bellied pig who was used for practice at a tattoo parlor, until they ran out of room; and Ripper, a vicious dog restrained within a Hannibal Lecter mask. Muscle and intimidation are supplied by a razor-toothed crocodile and a snarling little reptile dubbed Dragon.
Granted, Hart’s Snowball is a hoot: unhinged and uncontrolled, each of his rat-a-tat bursts of vengeance-laden declarations crazier than what came seconds before. It feels like Snowball was conceived in the spontaneous, motor-mouthed mold of the Blue Genie, from Aladdin. Talented as Hart is, though, he’s no Robin Williams; Snowball’s shtick is amusing initially, because of the obvious disconnect between the tiny bunny’s cute appearance, and his unbalanced ferocity ... but a little of that goes a long way.
As is the case with Snowball’s mean-spirited pursuit of Max and Duke.
The resulting balance is off, and that’s surprising, given the care with which Renaud and his writers crafted the characters in the Despicable Me and Minions franchises. Snowball and his animal thugs don’t “fit” well with the domesticated characters; the nasty bunny’s behavior interferes with the far more important bond developing between Max and Duke, and the gentler antics of Gidget’s rescue party.
There’s also an oddly unsatisfying sidebar involving Duke’s previous owner: a sequence that builds emotional oomph with a poignant flashback, and then just sorta gets dumped, with insufficient resolution. Not as weird as the sausage factory fiasco, but equally clumsy.
The narrative may be flawed, but the animation can’t be faulted. The film opens with an amazing “tracking shot” that begins with a majestic overhead view of the city, before zooming through parks and streets to arrive at the apartment complex that houses our primary characters. It’s an exhilarating experience, and beautifully orchestrated; the same can be said for many subsequent establishing sequences, as we roam through different parts of the city.
The character animation is cute, the voice talent either complementing or wittily contrasting a given critter’s appearance. Louis C.K. makes Max a stalwart, essentially honorable canine who wisely fears to go where events keep taking him; Stonestreet is appropriately crusty and self-defensive as Duke, whose imposing exterior conceals all sorts of insecurities.
Minion fans will be delighted to see that this film is preceded by a hilarious short, Mower Minions, which finds our yellow, capsule-shaped sidekicks hiring out as yard-care “experts,” in order to raise enough money to buy a banana blender (as seen on TV). This is Illumination Entertainment’s inaugural theatrical short, and I hope it’s the first of many more to come.
(And have you ever noticed that the word “minion” is present in IlluMINatION?)
Young children are bound to love The Secret Life of Pets; it’s a giddy, frequently funny, 90-minute roller coaster ride. But it won’t resonate as much with older viewers who’ve been conditioned by better, sharper and more insightful animated films from Pixar, Disney and Blue Sky.