Movie Review: Lots of laughs but not enough heart in ‘The Secret Life of Pets’
It’s probably fair to put the “lazy” label on critics who compare all animated features to the animated features produced at Pixar and Disney, saying that, with few exceptions, the Pixar and Disney films are better, smarter, and have more heart than their competition.
So go ahead and call me lazy. “The Secret Life of Pets,” though beautiful to look at, impressive in technique, very funny, and filled with top-notch voice performances, is a perfect example of that argument.
The problem lies in the script. This is a film, aimed directly at young viewers, with a wink to adults every once in a while (as in a witty nod to a line of dialogue from “Some Like It Hot”), that squeezes in just about every sight gag imaginable, but slacks off in areas of substance.
The story, all happening on one day, starts out as a look at the relationship between a pet and his owner. The pet is Max (voice of Louis C.K.), an energetic terrier mix, and the owner is Katie (Ellie Kemper) who, much to Max’s consternation, leaves home every day, without saying where she’s going. Well, we know she’s going to work, but little Max doesn’t have a clue.
But it’s not like there’s a separation anxiety problem. Max has plenty of company. The pets of seemingly everyone else in the apartment complex — from other dogs to a cat to a bird — are all pals of his, and when their owners mysteriously disappear each day, they come over to hang out with Max.
All sorts of funny stuff is on display here, much of it happening in a wordless series of set pieces involving, say, a cat trying to reach a roast chicken in the fridge or a dog moving furniture around to get the best vantage point for barking at squirrels.
Then jealousy moves into the picture when Katie suddenly brings home a new dog, a huge galumphing guy named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). She tells Max that Duke’s going to be his new roommate, then leaves for work. “There’s no room for you here,” suggests a caught-off-guard Max. “I need this place,” counters former pound dog Duke, with more than a hint of threat in his tone. “So it’s you or me.”
Yet just when it looks like the story is going to be about their rivalry, an errant dog walker lets them loose in the city where they begin their inevitable turn from rivals to friends after first encountering a gang of vicious feral cats, then lose their licenses, then are chased by a couple of inept animal control officials.
There’s plenty of story to go around, sometimes so much, it gets in the way of being with those two main characters. Soon it’s not just the bad cats and the bungling dog catchers after them, it’s also a large group of villainous animals, led by the cute but psychotic bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart), who claim they’ve been abandoned by their owners and now want revenge on humans. But wait, while on the run, and lost in the city, Max and Duke, also have their army of pals from their apartment building, along with Tiberius the hawk (voice of Albert Brooks), out looking for them.
There’s some scary danger, there are examples of different animals helping each other out of jams, and there’s even a suggestion of romance — Max’s neighbor’s dog Gidget (Jenny Slate) has a crush on him. But the movie never successfully gets beyond an endless stream of sight gag after sight gag, and leaves character development in the dust.
It’s neatly bookended by Katie’s return home at the end of the day, unaware of any calamities, followed by the returns of every other pet’s owners. It’s all good fun, but nothing about it calls out for a second viewing.
— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
“The Secret Life of Pets”
Written by Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch; directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney
With voices of Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Albert Brooks