As a dog owner, I have sometimes wondered what my beloved Satchmo is up to while I’m away. After some 20 seconds of thumbing through possibilities, I come to the conclusion that he is up to nothing at all, other than wallowing in happy ignorance. It turns out I was wrong. When I’m gone, Satchmo hijacks vehicles from public servants, gorges on hallucinogenic sausages and bastardizes my kitchen appliances. Thank you, Illumination, for bringing this to my attention.
“The Secret Life of Pets” follows Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), a small terrier of some kind who spends his free time patiently awaiting the return of his master, and is content to do so. A wrench is thrown into Max’s domestic bliss by the arrival of Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a Chewbacca-like sheepdog brought home from the pound. Blinded by jealousy, Max and Duke vie over the affections of their owner. One thing leads to another, and the two dogs end up lost in the city. Luckily for them, Max has a secret admirer in the form of Gidget (Jenny Slate)—a Pomeranian better taken care of than most children— who assembles a SEAL Team Six of domesticated animals—no seals, sadly—to locate, secure and return Max. Snowball (Kevin Hart) is the villain of the piece, and if his ruthless fighting style is anything to go by, he could very well be a descendant of the killer rabbit from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
Judging from the high-pitched echo in my theater, children will fall for this movie. Of all the animated films this year, this one might be the brightest and most colorful—your eyes will get cavities. What’s more, the aesthetic extends to the content, as the movie is toothless and unabashedly affable. As a tool for distracting small children, the film is near perfect, but for the ticket buyers, there’s not much here.
Most of the comedy that works is visual, no surprise, as this is the studio that brought you the minions. One of the antagonists, a thuggish pig, is tattooed with the dotted lines of a meat chart. Another of the antagonists is present in spirit only: Ricky the Goose. We don’t know what Ricky did, how he ended up in a human jail or what led to his demise but whenever his name is spoken, the camera cuts to his altar, signifying his everlasting imprint on animal villainy. Otherwise, the film is mostly just creative slapstick.
I don’t like to read the cast list of animated movies before I see them, as I find it mildly amusing to try and guess the voices as I watch. Kevin Hart was my only success—I’d recognize that squeaky toy in a blender anywhere. Elsewhere, the cast is fairly impressive, boasting Albert Brooks, who’s moved up from clownfish to hawk, and Dana Carvey as Pops, a two-legged bloodhound with a thing for chubby cats. Inexplicably, Louis C.K., one of the funniest guys around, is restricted to playing the straight man.
“The Secret Life of Pets” attempts to harness the appeal of internet cat videos into a 90-minute, concentrated fire of color and good will. Consider it victorious. For the more cynical among you, the PTSD-induced nightmares of big-eyed mammals cuddling to pop music will surely haunt the rest of your days.
3 out of 5 stars