The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

Ever wonder what your pets do when you’re not home?

To put it out there, I (for one) am simply not a fan of those annoying yellow gelcaps known as ‘Minions’ — granted, Universal Studios’ Minion Mayhem attraction (in Hollywood) is pretty darn awesome! In any case, with a tagline that reads ‘from the humans behind Despicable Me,’ I was initially not sold on The Secret Life of Pets, Illumination Entertainment not having released a non-Minions flick since The Lorax graced our screens way back in 2012. Surprisingly however there are no Stuarts, Kevins, Jerrys or Bobs in sight here — no siree! No ‘Bananaaaah!’ or ‘Potato-naaaaaah!’ screeches to be heard either — nope, not at all. What we have instead is an inspired, cheerful and colorfully zany family entertainer, one that’s gorgeously animated, fast-paced and spots one heck of a lively voice cast, The Secret Life of Pets standing as a worthy diversion for animal lovers of all ages.

'I feel like chicken tonight ...'
‘I feel like chicken tonight …’

The animation company’s 6th full-length feature, The Secret Life of Pets can be likened to ‘the secret life of toys,’ aka Toy Story (1995). With a premise that somewhat investigates what our beloved pets do while we (their keepers) are away, our story focuses on Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), a terrier living a carefree existence with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) in a picturesque high-rise apartment in the center of Manhattan. During his days the pampered Max hangs out with several other domesticated critters, all of whom reside in the surrounding buildings: there’s the haughty fat cat Chloe (Lake Bell), energetic pug Mel (Bobby Moynihan), short-legged, long-bodied Weiner-Dog Buddy (Hannibal Buress), fearless budgerigar Sweetpea (Tara Strong) and Gidget (Jenny Slate), a bouncy white Pomeranian who seems to have an apparent crush on her neighbor Max. And just like Woody from Pixar’s Toy Story, our protagonist’s world is turned upside-down when Katie arrives home late one evening with a rescue, Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a large, slobbering, shaggy brown mongrel whom she had just adopted.

With growing feelings of jealousy and rage, Max — concerned about being ‘replaced’ by a bigger, better pooch — tries to get one-up on his new roomy after their shaky first sleep together — Duke stealing Max’s bed, snoring incessantly and then chomping down on his grub the very next morning. Smashing up Katie’s pad after she heads off to work, Max (holding his own turf) threatens the oafish Duke to do as he commands, otherwise, with the coop all trashed, Katie could feel the need to return the non-domesticated stray. Later that day, when out for a walk at a downtown park, Duke, displeased with Max’s condescending attitude, attempts to ditch the wiry tail-wagger in a backstreet alleyway. Though while there, the dogs engage in a tussle with a clowder of ferocious felines, led by seedy Sphynx cat Ozone (Steve Coogan). During the scuffle however, both hounds manage to lose their collars, resulting in the pair being caught and caged by Animal Control.

Be careful when you follow the white rabbit.
Be careful when you follow the white rabbit.

Now, with our doggy duo headed for pound, it’s up to the contending mutts to put aside their petty differences and work together as a pack … well, that’s if they plan on making it back to their humble abode and devoted master all in one piece. Alas, navigating through the urban jungle may prove to be more difficult than it seems, our twosome being hunted by an angry mob of human-hating beasties known as the Flushed Pets — a subterranean colony of abandoned animals ruled by Snowball (Kevin Hart), a fuzzy yet deranged ex-magician bunny — with Duke fearing the possibility of being put down if he’s ever sent back to the ‘dog house.’

Everybody has (at some point) pondered over the untold life (and innermost workings) of their own fluffy loved one(s) — some of us projecting our own hopes and dreams down on our pets (come on guys, admit it). Illumination Entertainment’s newest film takes the clever idea of ‘what our pets do in the shadows’ and runs with it, filmmakers staging a giddy series of alternate exploits our cherished cats, dogs and birds ‘may or may not’ be up to behind closed doors — think walking on kitchen benches, misusing appliances or blasting music when there’s nobody around. How does the age-old saying go: When the cat’s away, the mice will play!

Obvious parallels to Toy Story aside, this spirited adventure is sharply scripted and aptly conceived, the narrative bringing that tender connection and irreplaceable bond between man and beast to the fore. Audiences will no doubt identify with (at least) one of the many household huggables — be it that guinea pig that one day ran away (we discover where he’s been hiding all along) or that poodle that’s not so posh — filmmakers Chris Renaud, Despicable Me (2010), and first-time feature director Yarrow Cheney doing with furballs what John Lasseter did with playthings some twenty years ago; though, it’s blatantly obvious that The Secret Life of Pets has been made by dog people, our leads both members of the canine family.

'This is gonna be ruff!'
‘This is gonna be ruff!’

Written by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio — of Despicable Me (2010) fame — and Brian Lynch, Hop (2011), The Secret Life of Pets is, at its core, a buddy flick with a waggish twist, our hairy heroes zipping from one mayhem-filled setup to the next, with peppy sight-gags and snappy quips aplenty — and hey, we’re even given a PG-13 rendering of Sausage Party, too, for all the kiddies who missed out on seeing the naughty Seth Rogen produced loony tune. All the same, the story comes complete with those moralistic life-lessons for the little ones, emphasizing the power of teamwork and friendship, instruments strong enough to prevail over the rifts that divide. And while not as deep as the critically hailed Zootopia (2016) — or as innovative as Toy Story — this bristly bash has its own unique voice, the film charming enough to leave a lasting paw print.

Animation wise, The Secret Life of Pets is top dog! With autumn as our season of choice, the swooping New York vistas are simply sensational, the metropolis a beautiful marriage between reality and fantasy. Be it the trees, with their red, gold and rust tainted leaves set against crushing blue skylines, or the stylized architecture that shimmers and sheens with the flare of the sun; heck, the dimly lit sewers are just as glamorized, too, this wowing aesthetic a testament to the steely work of the film’s production design and art direction team.

Likewise, from a physical standpoint, the ‘animal stars’ have been freakishly heightened, the plucky talent further strengthening these characters with their bushy-tailed mannerisms and vocal charisma. Both Louis C.K, The Invention of Lying (2009), and Eric Stonestreet — best known for playing Cameron Tucker on television’s Modern Family (2009) — are excellent as the courageous Max and unruly (yet lovable) Duke respectively — the latter having a bittersweet ark that somewhat mirrors that of Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl from Toy Story 2 (1999). Jenny Slate, Zootopia (2016), also stands out as the lovestruck Gidget, Max’s gutsy secret admirer, as does Albert Brooks, Finding Dory (2016), who voices the tempestuous Tiberius, a quick-witted Red-Tailed Hawk with killer instincts (and equally killer talons).

'Who ya calling a scaredy-cat?'
‘Who ya calling a scaredy-cat?’

But the movie’s shining beacon is (hands-down) Kevin Hart, Central Intelligence (2016), who supplies a herd of laughs as the antagonistic leader of the Flushed Pets, Snowball, this wayward wabbit adding an anarchic kink to proceedings, his craggy henchmen Tattoo (Michael Beattie) — a pot-bellied pig covered in ink — and the silent-but-deadly Ripper — a muzzled bulldog — supplying a comical contrast to the cutesy outer-shell of the unstable rodent.

My only gripe with the film, however, is its disappointing depiction of cats — which is far from purrr-fect — Chloe (and the other kittys for that matter) being the stereotypical lazy and complacent whiskered woolies we’ve seen countless times before — a bit of a missed opportunity really. Having fathered a cat for a good thirteen years, I know (first hand) that these remarkable ‘alien’ mammals are quite complex; they’re highly intelligent, curious (well, more so than we’re led to believe here), affectionate (if won over) and oddly elastic. Had filmmakers only taken the time to explore the headspace of a cat genuinely — now, wouldn’t that have been fascinating?

When all is said and done, The Secret Life of Pets is a delightfully fun ride, the movie giving us an imaginative glimpse of the mischief and mayhem our frizzy bffs get up to before scurrying back to the door and pretending that they’ve been waiting for us all day long — don’t you wonder what they’re doing right about now? Yes, it’s mushy and clichéd, full of old tricks made anew, but the sheer irresistibility of it all is bound to win over even the hardest of hearts. So, to anybody who has ever loved (or lost) a furry, scaled or feathered friend — this one’s for you!

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by S-Littner

The Secret Life of Pets is released through Universal Pictures Australia