I’ve often wondered how many people, like me, who come home to a wrecked couch or looted pantry or missing items and an animal pretending innocence with wide eyes staring up at me full of love while yawning as they awake from an afternoon nap, have wondered at what secret lives our pets have while we’re gone throughout the day. The nearly full theater I was in on a Sunday evening suggests many people.
Every dog has a little bit of a wild wolf in them, and every cat is (not so) secretly a murderer just waiting for their chance to kill. We project on them the qualities we want to see, like love and innocence, and while they do have attachments to us, they aren’t quite what we believe them to be. Because of this, and because we put more on our furry friends than may actually be there, it’s really not much of a stretch or surprise to us to see them existing in a community across species, going on adventures, and living double lives in a movie. The only real surprise about Secret Life of Pets is that it took this long before someone made it.
Summertime is full of special effects laden action blockbusters, but the second runner up for our attention is the animated feature, usually dominated by Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks. But Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures, the people behind Despicable Me, are out for their share of the pie with a feature film that tells the story of two lost dogs, Max and Duke, who just want to get home to their owner, and the real heroes; the motley crew of dogs, cats, birds, and hamsters that come together to save them, led by the determined Gidget. Secret Life of Pets is based in a New York City that is in the distance always futuristic with vast and shining skyscrapers reaching toward the sky, but in the near the movie is claustrophobic, made of brick buildings built on top of each other with laundry lines hung between and stylized after the closed-set-fake New Yorks of movies from the 50s and 60s where every open window has a different person, and a different story, and a different pet with an even more different story.
Secret Life is never going to challenge Pixar for tugging the emotional heart strings, but it has it moments of secretly elevating a moral above sight gags and laughs. In this case, about acceptance and the way families can change, I guess? That’s what I got, anyway. Maybe there’s another moral that children got, along with the kids jokes. I got most of those, too, and the jokes for adults, over the heads of the kids. There were plenty of both since studios have learned you need them to be a success.
Without a doubt there’s enough humor to keep you smiling and chuckling throughout. Much of which was the result of Kevin Hart’s Snowball, the homicidal scene stealing bunny. Snowball leads a second group of mixed animals including an alligator and tattooed pig interested in finding the lost dogs, but for less noble reasons. Half the comedy, including an on the nose musical number regarding food, comes from the supposed protagonists Max and Duke trying to get away from Snowball and getting more and more lost, but for me the real heart of the movie is Gidget, Max’s neighboring dog who gathers the pets of their building in a quest to save her… lets say… friend, and save the day. She may be naive, like when dealing with birds of prey, but she’s so earnest and when her back is against the wall, so tough that you’ll readily forgive her lack of guile.
But to be fair to Gidget, all the characters display sophistication when necessary (they can read) but innocence when it’s good for the story or a laugh (they can’t tell numbers). It’s one of the few negatives against what should be a straightforward and easy story to tell. Either these animals are simple enough to get lost a few blocks from home, or they’re complex enough to be able to drive cars and consistently outwit Animal Control, but it can’t be both. Except, apparently, in Secret Life of Pets it can be. Don’t think about it too hard. Side story- my movie going companion didn’t have a problem with any of that. No, what kicked her out of the moment was the view out Max’s apartment window changing from the beginning of the movie to the end. Probably just a corner unit though. I hear they’re cheap in Manhattan.
There are three types of successful animated movies; emotional ones like Up, stylistic ones like Howl’s Moving Castle, or funny ones, like Despicable Me, or some combination therein. Secret Life of Pets isn’t very emotional despite trying, and while the animation is on game, neither it nor the story are very stylized, so that leaves only funny, which is where the movie succeeds in litters and litters of adorable hilariousness.
Maybe the critters of Secret Life of Pets don’t know numbers, but we here in the Geek Stranger lab do!
The hamster is running in its wheel The batteries have been charged and we’ve got enough snacks and soda to run the computations through twice! So what’s the verdict? Is the film going back to the shelter or sleeping at the foot of the bed?
Apparently a good time, decent animation, and lots of laughs can overcome even the silliest of animal fails (see YouTube as evidence). So long as Chloe the cat promises to never care (while secretly caring), and Tiberius keeps those talons sheathed, we’re calling this one a day at the park.