“Liberated forever, domesticated never”
Illumination Entertainment’s latest film The Secret Life of Pets has an amazing hook: what do our pets do while we’re gone? We could obviously pay Comcast Xfinity to supply cameras and discover the answer to that question—why use product placement when you can show a commercial before the film that uses its characters as shills—but it’s more fun to imagine the possibilities ourselves. If you’ve seen any of the trailers you’ll know this is precisely what Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch, and Cinco Paul have decided. Their gags run the gamut from dog waiting patiently for hours, cat wreaking havoc, and poodle moshing to metal on the iPod. We laugh because some are true and others provide hilarious juxtapositions we wish were. It’s Toy Story with pets.
Like that Pixar classic, however, the hook only goes so far before you must introduce a story. That too is very similar as Katie’s (Ellie Kemper) loveable dog Max (Louis C.K.) finds himself staring straight into the eyes of what could very likely be his replacement: Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Just like his owner found him with nowhere to go in a box labeled “free puppies,” the newest edition to the family was days from being euthanized at the pound. So he’s here now, a brutish pooch with a temper that will do whatever is necessary to keep his spot by Katie’s side. He’s a bully by necessity and Max must play his game to reinstate superiority, namely by breaking things because the “new guy” will obviously be blamed.
Personalities clash as opportunism is replaced by malicious intent and suddenly Max and Duke are lost in a dark alley opposite Ozone (Steve Coogan) the feral cat. One thing leads to another as New York’s finest dogcatchers and a motley crew of discarded animals calling themselves the “Flushed Pets” begin chasing them around the city. The duo is running for survival while Katie is none the wiser at work or wherever else she goes. Stopping at nothing to find them, Flushed Pets leader Snowball the bunny (Kevin Hart) seeks revenge for an accident Max and Duke sparked. And on the flip side is Gidget (Jenny Slate), the prim and proper show cat of post-modern hipsters, in love with Max and ready to bear teeth in order to retrieve him.
Whereas Toy Story trusted its heroes to go on their quest and inevitably fall into dangerous situations along the way, The Secret Life of Pets bombards its protagonists with characters in constant pursuit. We aren’t simply following Max and Duke around so Gidget and her gang can find them before everyone turns around and survives the ensuing adventure. We instead tail Max and Duke as they run farther from home in hopes of one day returning; Gidget, Tiberius the falcon (Albert Brooks), Pops the paralyzed dog (Dana Carvey), Chloe the bothered cat (Lake Bell), and more retracing their friends’ steps and getting themselves in danger too; and Snowball’s posse wildly trying to create anarchy by destroying humanity and any pet willing to abide by its rules.
Danger isn’t met, it’s provided. There are so many characters milling about for directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney to wrangle and yet they don’t come together until maybe ten minutes left to ease the chaos. Who is the focus? Should we care more about Max and his struggles with Duke? Or is Gidget’s unrequited love and fierce aggression our main focal point since she’s the only pro-active hero of the bunch? And can we forget about Snowball’s tragic backstory turning him bitter? Shouldn’t we hope for a turnaround in attitude? I honestly didn’t know and the sheer amount of choices made my head hurt. Every ten minutes brings a brand new character into the fold with its own set of skills and sorrows. It’s a zoo.
I wasn’t therefore able to invest in anyone’s plight and neither was the film. With so much time spent setting Max up as the lead, his disappearing for large stretches is inexcusable. So is deciding to half-heartedly inject emotional heartstring tugs that disappear as abruptly as they arrive—sorry Fred, we hardly knew you. There’s definitely something here, but the kitchen sink method of inundating audiences with excess to hide the fact that the plot could be rectified in thirty minutes or less derails its potential. Besides in-jokes for pet owners littering the opening act, I only really remember two other distinctly fantastic sequences. One was a dream interlude of dogs eating dancing hula sausages and the other watching a sweet and tiny fur-ball kick some major ass.
By the end the humans are irresponsible egomaniacs treating their pets like property and the pets in turn appear helpless and dumb in their lack of self-respect. The film doesn’t set them up to be obedient servants because it’s not just about dogs. Everything showing how much love they have for their owners is the draw and yet it’s the one part of the whole that has no bearing on the actual story. The fact that these humans are reckless is what gets the ball rolling both by the impulsiveness of Katie to get a new dog and a dog walker’s disregard for responsibility. I found myself aligning with the Flushed Pets because their thesis seemed truest. Watching each pet embrace his/her owner at the conclusion felt false.
But they’re cute in the process and I guess that’s the real motive. Illumination is looking to entertain kiddies with adorableness and parents with the oft-adult-centered joke. It’s caricature incarnate and it works in keeping our attention no matter how intent it is on scrambling our brains with a refusal to breathe. The role of Max is specifically catered to C.K. so the character’s dryness may go over kids’ heads, but Slate’s Gidget ensures no one is bored through sheer schizophrenic energy. Hart is funny, Stonestreet a great straight man, and Brooks does what Brooks does. Bell’s Chloe’s apathy is a standout proving Pets is all about the characters—where they go and what they do is merely afterthought. This provides a fun 90-minutes, but little staying power.
 (L to R) Mel (BOBBY MOYNIHAN), Chloe (LAKE BELL), Gidget (JENNY SLATE), Norman (CHRIS RENAUD), Tiberius (ALBERT BROOKS), Sweetpea and Buddy (HANNIBAL BURESS) in Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures’ “The Secret Life of Pets,” a comedy about the lives our pets lead after we leave for work or school each day. Credit: Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures Copyright: © 2016 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
 An adorable and deranged bunny, Snowball (KEVIN HART) is the leader of the Flushed Pets in Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures’ “The Secret Life of Pets,” a comedy about the lives our pets lead after we leave for work or school each day. Credit: Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures Copyright: © 2016 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
 (Center) Ozone (STEVE COOGAN) is an alley cat with an attitude in Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures’ “The Secret Life of Pets,” a comedy about the lives our pets lead after we leave for work or school each day. Credit: Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures Copyright: © 2016 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.