We finally got the chance to see The Secret life of Pets recently, but would it live up to the hype, or will it roll over and play dead? ….. Join Film and TV Nerd to find out!
Secret Life of Pets is the story of a terrier mix named Max (Louis C.K.), his friends, and the sorts of trouble they find. There is an implication in the film’s title that these sorts of things happen fairly regularly, although due to the scope of the story and the havoc the pets wreak in New York City (things like shutting down part of the Brooklyn Bridge), that feels unlikely.
On this particular occasion, Max is dealing with his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper), having picked up a new dog, a rescue named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Not only does Max not want to share Katie and his home, Duke is unsure about sharing as well. Duke—who definitely has a size advantage—would be perfectly happy to see Max disappear.
Secret Life of Pets doesn’t stay on Max and Duke, nor Snowball and company, the entire time. It further breaks things up with Max’s friends, including Gidget (Jenny Slate), Mel (Bobby Moynihan), Chloe (Lake Bell), and Buddy (Hannibal Buress) joining forces with a hawk Tiberius (Albert Brooks), and an elderly dog, Pops (Dana Carvey), in order to rescue their friend.
As numerous animals are represented—Gidget’s group alone includes dogs, a cat, a hawk, and a budgie—Secret Life of Pets regularly riffs on our expectations of animal behavior, sometimes subverting them (a poodle listens to metal) and sometimes playing into them (cats are aloof, dogs crave companionship). Whichever way the film chooses to go at any given moment, it regularly leads to something funny.
The various storylines weave in and out of one another, with the movie constantly moving from one to the next. Rather than this occurring out of a need/desire to tell a interesting tale or offer character growth, it offers the sense that it does so in order to keep things moving – one wacky scene has finished, so shifting to another storyline allows a new wacky one to start. Occasionally things will slow down, but when this occurs the lull tends to pull the viewer out of the tale and wonder just how any of this could be happening in the first place (obviously it can’t, but it is better that no one think about that as it is unfolding).
Of course, as weird as scenes and characters might be, they are funny. Hart is particularly brilliant as Snowball, offering up an un utterly non-stop pace with joke after joke after joke. The notion of a cute little white bunny as the leader of an animal resistance out to do away with humans is moderately amusing by itself, but Hart sells it in a way that could have a human audience wondering if things might be better were Snowball to succeed.
All of this is combined with some amazing visuals. Secret Life of Pets opens with a spectacular fly-through of New York City and then regularly impresses throughout with its moving camera, vibrant colors, and level of detail.
As diverting as the visuals and some scenes are, it is all done in service of an overarching storyline that is never, not for a single second, in doubt. It makes the movie feel like something of an above average sleight of hand magic trick, one where the audience is shown the right hand waving manically to catch everyone’s attention while the left hand is where the important bits are going on. The problem is that all too regularly that left hand and what it’s doing remains in full view. A momentary subplot with Duke’s remembering his previous owner feels particularly out of place and included to both pad the runtime and offer an all-too-late explanation of Duke’s mindset.