“The Secret Life of Pets” – “Animals are such agreeable friends. They ask no questions. They pass no criticisms.” – George Eliot
Katie (Ellie Kemper), a young, single professional, does have an agreeable friend, and his name is Max (Louis C.K.). This loyal terrier loves Katie and appropriately thinks of her as his best friend, but he does ask one question: Where does Katie go each day?
Each workday, actually.
When she leaves every morning, Max obsessively waits by (and stares at) the front door until she returns. At least in Max’s case, one might predict his behavior while Katie is working, but “The Secret Life of Pets”, a new animated film from Illumination Entertainment (the folks who introduced the world to Minions), attempts to answer the question: What do our pets do while we are gone?
In the world of animation, the creative possibilities are endless, and since the film is set in New York City, opportunity knocks. Visually, the picture works splendidly. It leads with a spectacular opening of the most affluent towers in the concrete jungle to help define space while Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York” blasts over the theatre speakers.
Directors Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud then present the other neighboring pets in Max’s world, most notably, a cute snowball dog named Gidget (Jenny Slate) and an opportunistic cat named Chloe (Lake Bell). We also see a bird, a goldfish and every other animal one could dream up under the pet-rainbow. In concert with the movie’s original premise, the pets entertain themselves at home and offer many entertaining moments for the audience. With a poodle catering an appetite for heavy-metal music and a dachshund using a mixer as a back massager, kids and adults alike will appreciate and laugh at the pets’ efforts to play while their owners are away.
Cheney and Renaud, of course, need to create some conflict for Max, and it arrives in the form of Duke (Eric Stonestreet). He is a large, shaggy dog who Katie adopts, but in Max’s mind, two is company, but Duke makes three, and three is a most impeding crowd. In an attempt to sabotage each other in Central Park, they actually become lost in The Big Apple and need one another to find their way back home.
This particular story arc of two “bitter” enemies – who need to work together and bond in order to reach a common goal – has been told in literally thousands of forms over the past 80 years or so, and in order for a given film (like this) to work, the two leads need have great cinematic chemistry with sharp writing behind them.
Unfortunately, neither one exists here.
Although Max is the “hero” of the picture, he does not generate warm feelings from the audience, because, he harbors jealously and selfishness for having to suddenly share his time with Duke. Duke is no saint either, and while these two face real problems in returning to Katie’s apartment, the end result is there is no serious emotional investment from the audience.
Meanwhile, on the streets, they do encounter a plethora of animals that only a massive urban melting pot can offer. A group of acrobatic alley cats and cute little bunny with a dastardly mean streak (Kevin Hart) stand out the most. Hart actually steals several scenes by bringing some welcomed and well-timed comic relief as the scheming and scorned Snowball. Without much serious dramatic tension, my attention focused on the slew of characters and the animated stunts, which at times were very fun to watch.
One particular dance scene at a sausage factory – of all places – engenders memories of classic Fred Astaire pictures and Looney Tunes cartoons with a hint of “Fantasia” sprinkled in for good measure.
“The Secret Life of Pets” undoubtedly measures up in terms of big screen look and feel – and along with the accompanied (and hilarious) Minions’ short – tenders plenty of good-spirited currency. One can easily question and criticize the overall narrative, but the film is certainly agreeable.
Image credits: Universal Pictures; Trailer credits: Illumination (YouTube)