Movie Review: The Secret Life of Pets
The Secret Life of Pets offers warm, fuzzy reflection on what it means to be human by immersing us in the animal world where money has less value than an old sock, a bowl of kibble or a tender, loving touch
The Secret Life of Pets
Featuring the voices of: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Ellie Kemper, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress
Directed by: Yarrow Cheney, Chris Renaud
Running time: 1hr 30 mins
MPAA Rating: General
By Katherine Monk
We all wonder what they do when we’re gone. They’d like us to think they’re sleeping, but the painterly evidence proves dogs often play poker in our absence, while cats plot world domination via YouTube videos.
It’s a whole secret life, and directors Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud approach their latest animated effort as something of an expose of the animal world — even though what we’re really watching is human behaviour hiding behind a furry mask.
That’s just the reality of any animated film featuring talking animals. The beauty of this one is how well it understands its own point of view and makes no apologies for anthropomorphizing its central characters — beginning with Louis C.K. as a terrier cross named Max.
Like any great Dickensian protagonist, Max was taken in as a vulnerable youngster and given a fresh start with an older human. Katie (Ellie Kemper) is a dog person, and Max is deeply attached to this kind, nurturing, playful woman who takes him out for walks, throws a ball, and rubs his fuzzy tummy.
Every day, he’s overjoyed to see her walk through the door. Until the day she rescued Duke, a much larger, hairier and pushier pooch from the pound.
Max feels displaced and abandoned, but with a little help from his menagerie of neighbours, he hatches a plot that could remove Duke’s drool-covered muzzle from his immediate environs.
All he has to do is find Duke’s original owner and facilitate a happy reunion.
At its deepest level, it’s the stuff of Joseph Campbell with a flea collar. But on the surface, it’s one long bit of observational comedy about pets — which is about as good as comedy gets, given how much pleasure we derive from watching them do just about anything, from eating kibble in two gulps to pouncing on a laser light.
Writers Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch are keen observers of animal silliness and they score points in small places as the upscale and domesticated types hit the mean, feral streets of the big city.
Of course, every creature they encounter exhibits human traits. There’s a crazed, hairless alley cat voiced by Steve Coogan, a criminally inclined rabbit animated by Kevin Hart and a very old hound who gets around in a wheeled sling for his hind legs.
It’s all cute and cuddly, but also steeped in the kind of gentle pathos that automatically inhabits any movie about animals. We assign animals nobler traits than humans in most cases because they act on instinct and not some ego need to prove themselves.
Their ability to cut through all the clutter and access our emotional core is what makes the pet-person dynamic so special; it puts the rest of the world into perspective and forces us refocus on the moment.
The creative team at the core of this movie — many of whom were involved in Despicable Me — are great observers, but they are also compassionate and gentle. They offer great insights into what it means to be human from the other side of the great Darwinian divide.
It’s not an obvious lecture on cooperation, sharing or the income gap, but all these real world issues exist in the frame. Some animals live in fancy digs, others lounge on cast-off carpets, but there is no judgment. After all, pets do not have bank accounts, they do not understand money and they could care less if their owner is a Hollywood star or an ex-con.
The only real rewards for animals are food, love and safety — which is exactly where we would be if we hadn’t created this false economy of meaning, where money trumps all else.
The Secret Life of Pets certainly isn’t the first time filmmakers have looked to cats and dogs to reflect our own reality, but it’s easily the most fun because they aren’t trying to be hyper-realistic. They’re pulling inspiration from the likes of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery in true cartoon fashion, and it’s ironic, but the more cartoonish the animals become — the more human they seem, exhibiting our worst traits with an innocent grin.
Louis C.K. does a fine job as the straight man in the kennel, allowing Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate and Lake Bell to pump up the comedy with some help from the animation team — who turn out to be the real stars of the movie.
Every time I found myself laughing out loud, it was largely the result of the visuals. They captured the essence of animal behaviour — from a cat casually playing with a mouse, to a pug dragging its hind quarters across the carpet — without pushing it over the top, making for a little human treat in a very colourful package.
THE EX-PRESS, July 8, 2016