The Secret Life of Pets feels and plays out like a Pixar movie that fell off the assembly line. It’s teeming with Pixar-esque elements — cute animals, a serrated premise about the pains of love encased in a sweet, harmless-looking package — and takes place in a mundane, street-level world made magical by a team of animators’ collective imagination and skill.
But there are also moments that skew a little too dark. A salty scene that bares its fangs and gets a bit too mean. A third act that’s a bit too raw, as if it’s missing its final coat of paint and polish.
The result is a reckless, messy film that is somehow still endearing, charming even. In this era of Pixar-perfected proficiency, The Secret Life of Pets is intriguing because of what it isn’t.
The film is surprisingly dark — and it might make you feel guilty about owning a pet
Created by Despicable Me filmmakers Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud, The Secret Life of Pets has a more grounded premise than its Minion-flavored cousins: The lives of our animal companions — dogs, cats, birds, fish, reptiles, even alpacas if that’s your thing — revolve around us, so what do our pets do when we’re not around?
Thanks to technology and the rising popularity of GoPro cameras, we’re somewhat aware of the loneliness and anxiety our dogs experience when we leave for the office every morning. And thanks to the prevalence of smartphones, watching other people’s pets’ Vines and stalking their Instagrams isn’t weird at all — it’s become a fixture in pop culture.
The Secret Life of Pets begins with that idea — watching someone else’s pet, specifically a dog named Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) and his owner, Katie (voice by Ellie Kemper). Just as we’re settling into the routine of Max’s life, Katie brings home a bigger, brusquer mutt named Duke (voiced by Eric Stonestreet) who completely changes the dynamic of what is now a two-dog, one-owner household.
As Duke barges his way into Max’s previously gilded life, everything begins to crud over. Soon the two canines are players in a weird, dark story about animal control, humans not loving their pets, and a sewer-dwelling Napoleonic rabbit (Kevin Hart) who preaches that domesticated animals should kill their human owners.
The interactions between Max and Duke are strangely sinister. Max sees Duke as a threat for Katie’s affection and feels none of the brother-brother relationship that Katie projects onto them. In the film’s opening act, Duke catches wind of Max’s disdain for him and becomes a gruff brown monster, taking Max’s bed and food, daring Max to push his buttons even more. Duke’s face sharpens into something more feral; his voice drops, suggesting he’s capable of something dangerous, abusive.
Meanwhile, the rest of the film is studded with instances of darkness and harshness. One subplot involves pets that humans have flushed down the toilet or gotten rid of, as the animals plot their revenge. Another yields a bizarre and gleefully violent hallucination sequence in which a bunch of dancing sausages clad in hula skirts have their heads bitten while singing Grease’s "We Go Together."
These bits (well, perhaps not the gory dancing sausage dream) do their part to flesh out an uncomfortable truth: that human-pet love is ultimately selfish, tilted in favor of humans. That declaration isn’t incorrect, but it’s also one we don’t usually see explored in such a weirdly approachable — yet sharply deranged — way.
The best part of The Secret Life of Pets is its fearlessness
Lest this film sound like a total buzzkill, I should note that The Secret Life of Pets’ world building isn’t totally preoccupied with gloom, doom, and the downfall of man.
Max and Katie’s apartment complex is home to a menagerie of domesticated animals and a cool collection of vocal talents. In particular, Gidget (Jenny Slate), a telenovela-loving puffball of a Pomeranian, and Chloe (Lake Bell), a cynical overeating cat, made me yearn for spinoffs about their day-to-day lives. And a trio of odd pups voiced by Dana Carvey, Bobby Moynihan, and Hannibal Buress all have their moments.
Like the movie’s scarier bits, all of these pets are meant to be reflections of their owners. Their personalities are shaped by the love they receive (or don’t). And the film clearly wants to examine how we choose our animal companions and which parts of our lives we tend project onto them.
But like a dog that’s just seen a squirrel or a butterfly (the subject of a couple of overplayed jokes in the movie), The Secret Life of Pets never lingers too long on that weightier topic — or on any topic, really. Its pacing is frenetic, and its script is stacked with jagged stops and starts.
The benefit of the movie’s short attention span is that its darker scenes never get too uncomfortable — you never feel like the filmmakers are deliberately telling a story about how the pet industry feeds on human selfishness.
But the drawback is that the film never allows you to really relish the bond that can form between man and pet. To wit: A pivotal death scene is just dropped and forgotten. Ultimately, what you’re left with is more of an experience than a coherent movie.
But even if you don’t believe the casting of Slate as a hopelessly romantic Pomeranian is perfection, or don’t appreciate the sublime insanity of the film’s hallucinatory sausage dream, The Secret Life of Pets’ ambition to tell the stories it dares to tell, even the dark ones, is admirable. And occasionally its slapdash energy even approaches genius. It’s still worth leaving your best friend — be it a cat, bird, dog, fish, snake, or alpaca — home alone for a couple of hours to go see it.
The Secret Life of Pets is playing in theaters throughout the country.