'The Secret Life of Pets'
‘The Secret Life of Pets’ might not be the latest ‘Minions’ movie, but it’s just as adorably amusing (if immediately forgettable) as anything starring those talking Happy Meal toys. This isn’t the best animated movie of the summer, but it will likely be insanely successful and difficult to find anyone who didn’t sit through the thing without cracking a smile.
Ever since stumbling into box office gold with ‘Despicable Me’, Illumination Entertainment has carved out a space as the most traditionally cartoony of the CG animation feature factories. The studio doesn’t make the most artistically accomplished movies or the most meaningful ones or even the most memorable ones. However, its projects are amusing and have a knack for delivering simple visual gags and lovable characters with no pretentions or rambling stabs at sentimentality. This studio is all about unapologetic entertainment and is just good enough at delivering cutesy funnies to make it work every time.
Essentially, this is ‘Toy Story’ with pets. Every day when the residents of New York leave their apartments for work, their pets get together for chitter-chatter and shenanigans. That’s pretty much the entire premise, easily condensed to a trailer and tough to resist for those charmed by brightly colored cartoon animals being cute (i.e. children and most embarrassed adults).
Louis C.K. (yes, you read that right) voices the lead canine, Max. He’s an adorable beagle with a loving master named Katie (Ellie Kemper). Everything goes topsy-turvy in Max’s idyllic world when Katie brings home a gigantic rescue dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). They feud immediately and end up getting lost on streets of New York, pursued by idiot dog snatchers and a gang of bitter strays led by a badass bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart, obviously). The only folks that can save them are a gang of pets led by Jenny Slate’s adorable fluffball with a crush on Max and a handful of other celebrity-voiced oddballs including Albert Brooks’ vicious bird and Lake Bell’s selfish cat.
So, yeah, ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ is hardly a movie that will win points for originality. It’s essentially a hodgepodge of elements from previous animated hits connected by the old “What happens when pets are alone?” routine. It works because Illumination house director Chris Renaud and company don’t pretend for a second that they’re doing anything beyond big goofy entertainment. The movie flies by at a rapid clip with one slapstick gag and or famous comic spitting out one-liners after the next. There’s barely any breathing room between all the bouts of brightly colored, ADD friendly, animated insanity that unfolds on the screen. The dramatic throughline established with Max and Duke’s feud is abandoned almost instantly, as are pretty much any plot threads or sequences the filmmakers fling at the screen. The script feels like it was written on the fly by a committee of joke writers throwing out every funny idea they could imagine and then tossing in a few more when they got bored. That sounds like a weakness, but it’s kind of the movie’s greatest strength.
The movie has so many jokes and ridiculous characters in play that they can’t help but land every few minutes. There’s a manic insanity to the whole thing that recalls old Tex Avery or Chuck Jones cartoons, minus any of the hidden intelligence. It’s practically the opposite approach to Pixar’s “Story is god” formula and that’s what makes ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ work. The visual design is seductive, the gags unrelenting, the characters delightful, and there’s just enough heart stuck in at the end for tiny emotional oomph to wrap things up. You could call this or any other Illumination production downmarket Pixar and that would be accurate.
There’s a grand tradition of goofy anarchistic entertainment in Hollywood animation that these flicks belong to. They’re merely the biggest, most recent, and most expensive examples. There’s a reason why they’re hits and that’s because the cartoon fun is delivered with little fuss and less muss. It’s simultaneously deranged and completely safe. It’s not high art, but it is honest trash made with love. ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ should please everyone as planned and then slowly disappear. That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with empty entertainment as long as it delivers the goods and doesn’t pretend to be anything else.