The Secret Life of Pets is an animated family romp focused on Max (Louie C. K.), a loveable house pup, who enjoys the good life in his New York City apartment with doting owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). When Katie brings home a shaggy, raucous stray named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), Max finds his idyllic world in ruins and seeks to rid himself of Duke by any means necessary and become (sorry) top dog once again.
As the two hounds vie for attention and clash, inevitably they find themselves lost in the big city after Duke’s attempt to leave Max behind after a walk goes awry. Max and Duke thus have a New York adventure in their attempt to get home along the way encountering a creepy horde of skeevy cats and an underground group of unwanted pets, led by quasi-homicidal bunny, Snowball (Kevin Hart). Along the journey, the two dogs must find a way to work together if they ever hope to see Katie again.
What works in the The Secret Life of Pets is the voice acting. Louie C. K., Stonestreet, and Hart all provide a good blend of humor and warmth to their respective roles. In most instances, voices may sound familiar to audience members, but they are never distracting, as the talent has been aptly matched with their furry, feathery, or scaly counterparts. C. K. in particular does a solid job, tempering down his typical sarcastic disdain into a more likeable performance, which feels natural for Max’s voice.
The Secret Life of Pets will mostly entertain children of all ages. The physical humor is abundant, which will appeal to the youngest suitable audiences, and while some may find it regrettable, older kids will likely guffaw at the potty humor. The danger-laden sequences in the film will thrill, but not scare, and parents will probably appreciate most of the messages, rote as they be.
While The Secret Life of Pets will be a fine distraction, especially for kids, most of the tale is derivative. The core theme of two “people” battling their own selfishness, in order to accept the goodness the other offers, is well-worn material. The Secret Life of Pets really offers very little that is new or refreshing, and essentially follows beat for beat other stories of mismatched animals trying to find their way home. The obvious telegraphing of previous work may grate on parents who have likely been subjected other, stronger movies that are similar.
Furthermore, there are a few sequences that both a) reinforce some odd stereotypes about particular animals, and b) feel a little too intense or mature when talking about death and murder. For example, the misfit pets are all typically “non-cute” creatures, such as the scary venomous snake who only exists to bite new recruits to the underground cult as part of a weird initiation process. The only character in the film who reverses this trend is the leader, the fluffy bunny. And while Hart’s take on Snowball solicits a chuckle or two, his desire to kill all the owners (his exact words) occasionally wanders into disconcerting and uncomfortable territory.
In the end, The Secret of Life Pets is amusing and mostly safe, especially for older children. But compared to other recent animal-focused animated fare, the final result is far from fresh.
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Photos Courtesy of Universal Pictures