The Secret Life of Pets: Kaleidoscope of Loud, by David Bax
Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud’s The Secret Life of Pets is a movie for kids. Now, obviously that’s not anything you don’t already know. But for those of us who (childlessly) appreciate the films produced by Laika or the upper echelon of Pixar and consider ourselves fans of family friendly entertainment, it will serve as a reminder of what kids are dragging their parents to the theater to see on all the other weekends. It’s frenzied, shrill and saccharine and everything’s turned up to maximum volume (literally, in the case of the adorable bunny rabbit villain voiced by Kevin Hart, who is never not shouting). Despite all this, though, its velocity and overall coherence make it a passable if uninspired 90 minutes.
Max (Louis C.K.) is a small dog who loves his life in the Manhattan apartment of Katie (Ellie Kemper) until, one day, she returns home with a new addition in the form of a giant mutt named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). When Max and Duke’s acrimony and one-upmanship results in their being lost and collarless, they must travel home across the city and its obstacles, from dogcatchers to stray cats to sewer-dwelling alligators. Meanwhile, another group of animals from Max and Duke’s building, led by a fluffy little dog named Gidget (Jenny Slate), set off to find their friends themselves. It’s Baby’s Day Out meets Finding Dory (and, just like the latter film, it features animals driving vehicles; an odd trend this summer).
Most of the film’s gags revolve around the juxtaposition of animals with human intelligence against recognizable, real life pet behavior. Dogs suddenly lose their minds when squirrels appear; cats become frustrated when their claws stick their little toy mice to their paws. It’s like watching an observational comic whose entire act is about the foibles of his or her pets. Plenty of it is funny but it wears thin over time, leaving you to ponder things like how to feel about animals who have so much agency and ambition yet speak glowingly of their “owners.” The implications are unsettling at the least.
Secret Life is at its best when it switches up the nature and tone of its comedy. Cheney and Renaud seem to have more fun the weirder they get. The film’s highlight is a fantasy sequence wherein Max and Duke, having broken into a sausage factory, imagine themselves in a world entirely composed of dancing and singing sausages. This is both as outlandish and, unexpectedly, as dark as the movie gets, with Max happily chomping the head off of anthropomorphic links while their lower halves continue the steps of the choreography.
Eventually, everything culminates in a legitimately thrilling and suspenseful climax on the Brooklyn Bridge. Effective as the sequence is, though, it makes you wish more of the movie worked at the same level. Instead, Cheney and Renaud traded verve for cacophony as well as the unforgivable use of “Welcome to New York,” perhaps the most garish song of Taylor Swift’s career.
If, however, The Secret Life of Pets encourages folks to make sure their dogs are chipped and collared and to give them some extra love and affection, I suppose it’s worth it.