“The Secret Life of Pets” is directed by Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud, and written by Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, and Brian Lynch. It stars Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, and Steve Coogan.
The Secret Life of Pets has a pretty high-concept, straightforward premise: “what do pets do when left alone all day?” It’s as simple as that, and I cannot recall another movie with that exact hook (okay, I’m sure there was one at some point). Illumination, the studio behind the Despicable Me franchise, made the film, and the creative team behind Pets shares several names with the DM movies.
The central character is Max (Louis C.K.), who, like all dogs, loves his owner dearly. Whenever she leaves for work, he waits all day for her return. One day, she brings home a new dog, Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Max is confused and jealous. Soon, Max and Duke find themselves lost in New York after getting separated from their walker, and are forced to find their way home.
The most obvious, immediately impressive thing about Pets is its voice cast, which even by the standards of big budget animated features is legit (it gives Angry Birds a run for its money). Lots of fantastic comedy people lend their talents. Louis C.K. does a great job in a leading role (this is first time doing voice work of any kind). He plays Max as simple and inquisitive. He is not at all worldly or intelligent but that’s just fine with him. His sun rises and falls with his owner, Katie. Albert Brooks and Lake Bell also impress, but the standout is Jenny Slate, who gives one of my favorite voice performances in a long time as Gidget, Max’s neighbor who nurses a crush on him. Her work here is simply adorable. I loved every second Gidget was on screen. She is the movie’s highlight.
The movie could best be described as “cute” and “fun.” It’s also a bit insubstantial, with the more emotional material not packing quite the punch it’s meant to. The original Despicable Me works so well because it’s grounded in Gru’s relationship with his surrogate daughters. Pets attempts to do something similar with pets’ bonds with their owners, and while that’s nice and all, the film’s ending doesn’t quite sing in the way it ideally would. There’s also the fact that “pet humor” is a bit played out at this point. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen some of these jokes on the HBO series Animals. As such, The Secret Life of Pets is never really laugh out loud funny. It is, however, highly watchable and brisk.
It is also pretty visually appealing. Illumination’s signature style of brightly colored, “cartoonish” CG is on full-display here (Illumination’s work is more exaggerated than, say, Pixar). All of the different environments look great. Highlights include the really striking and pretty sweep through New York City that opens the film (I’m pretty sure I prefer Illumination’s version of Washington Square Park to the real deal), and a weird digressive fantasy sequence about sausages that you’re just going to have to see for yourself.
The Secret Life of Pets is no masterpiece, but it’s an entertaining, entirely pleasant trifle.