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The Secret Life Of Pets

by Kevin Taft
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jul 8, 2016
'The Secret Life of Pets'
'The Secret Life of Pets'  

"The Secret Life of Pets" ends up being a promise not kept. What has been advertised as the a film about what animals do when their owners are away soon devolves into a typical anthropomorphic caper about two dogs bonding while trying to find their way home. While one can argue that this still follows true to the premise, it's mightily disappointing nonetheless.

In the slight story by three credited screenwriters, a small terrier named Max (Louis C.K.) is adopted by an impossibly slender girl named Katie (Ellie Kemper) on the streets of (a very clean) New York. The two build a life and friendship together that creates an unbreakable bond that Max cherishes. When Katie is at work, Max spends time with his friends from all over the apartment building, including white puffball Gidget (Jenny Slate), unamused cat Chloe (Lake Bell) and a handful of other nutty characters ranging from a weiner dog to a small bird. All of these pets do charmingly unexpected things when their owners aren't around, and this is what makes the movie so appealing.

The problem is, after a ten-minute sequence showing us what these pets do when no one is looking, the plot takes a more typical storytelling turn: Katie brings another stray dog home to live with them. This one is a large, shaggy-haired mutt named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Duke is a bull of a dog and he starts to take over the apartment, much to the chagrin of Max. When Max finally puts his paws down and demands respect, things seem to change for the better. But when Max, Duke, and the rest of the building's menagerie stroll through the streets of New York the next day, the two dogs get separated and into a load of trouble.

This trouble comes in the form of a tiny, fluffy bunny named Snowball, voiced with the usual snarky sass by Kevin Hart. Snowball is a part of a gang of "flushed pets" who live in the sewers and want to kill all humans. That's right, this children's movie has a subplot where abandoned pets want to murder human beings and take over the world. How's that for Family Movie night? After the two dogs commit an act that infuriates this large group of baddies, they go on the run, trying to find their way home. Along the way they have an acid trip in a sausage factory (the film's most unusual, confusing, and unnecessary sequence), try to avoid going to the pound, seek out Duke's old owner, and face down their enemies once and for all.

The problem with the "Secret Life of Pets" is not only that the plot is nothing special, but that there is very little emotion involved. (In fact, it's also fairly violent.) While "Finding Dory" had even the adults in tears, there's nothing in "Secret Life" that warrants the same reaction. There is talk of one owner's death, but it's literally an aside without a reaction from the character that has just lost its best friend. Not only that, the movie starts with Katie and Max as best buddies, but Katie is missing for most of the movie and doesn't have any sort of character arc. In fact, as the storywriters have written it, most of the owners we see are all single, which would be ripe for exploration as a plot device. (Max goes through the apartment building to find a mate for his best friend.)

If you are going to center your movie on what pets do when you're gone, have it be something that would surprise the owners. Sure, racing around the city is certainly not what an owner would think their pets were doing, but this needed to be a sort of animated animal version of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." It should have been about the animals experiencing life as a human. Instead we get the old "journey to get home" plot, which just feels tired.

As directed by Chris Renaud ("Despicable Me") there are some laughs, but they come early and the plot can't sustain them. The film also feels suspiciously uncomfortable when the voice work by the able cast has the minority actors voicing the evil "gang" that lives in the sewers. (That and a fey male character stereotypically owns a large poodle.)

Ultimately, this is a fairly forgettable film that will amuse young children, but could have really appealed to adults who are pet owners themselves. Dealing with pets is a very specific act, and watching how the filmmakers could have played with those expectations could have made this one of the most inventive comedies of the year. Instead, we get a fairly uninspired look into a dog's jealousy. Kind of. Maybe. There's honestly too many characters that the true meaning of the film isn't that clear.

Maybe that's the secret.

The Secret Life of Pets

Max (Louis C.K. ) is a spoiled terrier who enjoys a comfortable life in a New York building until his owner adopts Duke, a giant and unruly canine. During their walk outside, they encounter a group of ferocious alley cats and wind up in a truck that's bound for the pound. Luckily, a rebellious bunny named Snowball swoops in to save the doggy duo from captivity. In exchange, Snowball demands that Max and Duke join his gang of abandoned pets on a mission against the humans who've done them wrong.


Runtime :: 91 mins
Release Date :: Jul 08, 2016
Language :: Silent
Country :: United States


Voice of Max :: Louis C.K.
Voice of Duke :: Eric Stonestreet
Voice of Snowball :: Kevin Hart
Voice of Katie :: Ellie Kemper
Voice of Tiberius :: Albert Brooks
Voice of Chloe :: Lake Bell
Voice of Pops :: Dana Carvey
Voice of Buddy :: Hannibal Buress
Voice of Mel :: Bobby Moynihan
Voice of Norman :: Chris Renaud
Voice of Ozone :: Steve Coogan
Voice of Tattoo :: Michael Beattie
Voice of Gidget :: Jenny Slate


Director :: Chris Renaud
Co-Director :: Yarrow Cheney
Screenwriter :: Cinco Paul
Screenwriter :: Ken Daurio
Screenwriter :: Brian Lynch
Producer :: Chris Meledandri
Producer :: Janet Healy
Film Editor :: Ken Schretzmann
Original Music :: Alexandre Desplat
Production Design :: Eric Guillon
Art Director :: Colin Stimpson

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to 'Star Wars' and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg.

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