Ever wonder about what your pets do when you leave the house? My husband and I are convinced our dachshund stays on the couch, sleeping like an angel while we’re out. A puppy cam would reveal we are correct. Pixar pondered a similar question decades ago about what our toys did, and they birthed an empire. Directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney’s THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS does what TOY STORY has done before it, positing a clever idea about a world none of us could ever know, let alone prove exists. While it almost unapologetically recycles TOY STORY’s plot – as well as a few key things from the others in the trilogy – there’s enough to qualify it as cute, but not revolutionary.
Terrier Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) and his owner Katie (voiced by Ellie Kemper) are inseparable. That is, until she has to go to work every day and he misses her like crazy. It’s a good thing he’s got fwends like fluffy Pomeranian Gidget (voiced by Jenny Slate), doxie Buddy (voiced by Hannibal Buress), bulldog Mel (voiced by Bobby Moynihan), cat Chloe (voiced by Lake Bell), and chirpy bird Sweet Pea. But Max’s world is turned upside down when Katie adopts a stray dog – big, brown, floppy-haired mutt Duke (voiced by Eric Stonestreet). The four-legged pair clash over everything – personal space, food, beds, you name it. However, it’s not until their egos get the best of them that they’re forced to unite in order to find their way back home – a difficult task given they are wanted by animal control and a pack of grizzled rogue pets led by a cute vengeful bunny, Snowball (voiced by Kevin Hart).
Ken Daurio, Cinco Paul and Brian Lynch’s script is very much the Illumination Entertainment mentality – not Pixar’s – despite being cut practically whole-cloth from the TOY STORY trilogy. Max and Duke’s struggles and journey are much like Woody and Buzz’s – except not as well executed. Unlike Buzz, who was more delusional than anything, Duke starts out as a selfish jerk, making it challenging to root for him. Max then raises the bar on Duke’s bad behavior and becomes far less likeable. So by the time they get lost in the city, we find it a little difficult to care if they make it back. It seems the screenwriters missed what made Buzz and Woody’s antagonistic relationship work perfectly. Snowball is this film’s Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear, except with 90% more yelling because it’s Hart doing the voicing. Can a bunny peacock? Yes, it can.
Even more disappointing is that the filmmakers don’t strain themselves to go beyond situational broad comedy, leaving a lot of territory undiscovered. There’s a noticeable hand-wave to key emotional moments as the filmmakers rush past them – specifically when Duke finds out about his owner. The introduction of Duke’s memories is staggeringly reminiscent of Jessie’s Sarah McLachlan-scored montage in TOY STORY 2, but doesn’t pack anywhere near the emotional punch. Plus the end-of-act-two relationship downturn lasts about as long as it took you to read this sentence.. Pet quirks are front-loaded into the feature (and were all in the trailer) rather than spread throughout. Yes, they do gags here and there – like the vacuum cleaner used to shut down a party – but they’re few and far between. The story lags in act two when we get not just one, but two sewer scenes. We don’t need to see characters treading over places we’ve already been, playing catch-up – at least not in the manner at which it happens here.
Though much of it feels forcibly manufactured, the comedy works best when it taps into zany absurdity – like whenever Ricky is brought up, or the sacred viper’s fate, or when Max and Duke’s have a hallucinatory trip in a sausage factory. It’s fun to see doxie Buddy noodle-parkour his way up a building (which reminded me of this). There’s something bombastic about the way the gang makes its way around the city – let alone into and out of each other’s apartments. The production design is beautiful, colorful and remarkable. New York City appears warm, sparkling and inviting. The heartwarming finale is perhaps this film’s best segment, as it feels satisfyingly earned and perfectly relatable to pet owners.
Nevertheless, this feels like a short stretched far too long.
2.5 out of 5
THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS opens on July 8.