FILM REVIEW – THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS. With the voices of Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Albert Brooks. Written by Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch. Directed by Yarrow Cheney, Chris Renaud. Rated PG for action and some rude humor. 90 minutes.
American animation spent a long period of time where there was Disney and then there was everyone else. The non-Disney material was few and far between. Now we seem to have returned to the Golden Age where multiple studios–each with a distinct style–is turning out quality work. With Disney, there’s the Pixar and non-Pixar films. DreamWorks Animation has done some outstanding films. BlueSky (part of 20th Century Fox) seems happy to churn out the second rate but profitable “Ice Age” films.
And there’s Illumination. On the basis of the “Despicable Me” movies (including “The Minions”) and “The Lorax,” it’s clear that they’ve learned from the competition as to what works today: strong characters, a sturdy plot, animation technique. Then they add to this dollops of their own surreal and quirky humor and they’ve got a winning formula which is fully on display in THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS.
The story is about how city pet Max (voice of Louis C. K.) finds his life disrupted when his owner brings home a stray. Duke (Eric Stonestreet) is a behemoth of a dog, and not inclined to share with Max. This leads to the main adventure where they get lost and end up with an underground group of abandoned animals–headed by a deceptively cute bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart)–who have declared war on humanity. Meanwhile, the other neighborhood pets have broken loose to find and rescue their friend Max.
Part of the humor comes from knowing what real cats and dogs are like, so that the jokes connect. When we see a cat hitting the on button from atop the clothes dryer where it’s sleeping, any cat owner–or person owned by a cat–will nod in recognition of their pets seeking just the right perch. The comedy goes into another world when a hungry Max and Duke sneak into a sausage factory and are greeted by dancing sausages eager to be eaten.
The characters are not merely setups for jokes, but have their own stories, and some of them are touching. A falcon (Albert Brooks) has to learn not to treat the neighborhood pets as potential prey. An elderly dog (Dana Carvey) who needs wheels to get around turns out to have some life in him yet. And Gidget (Jenny Slate) is not about to give up on her boyfriend Max, even if he doesn’t know he’s her boyfriend.
In short, the Illumination style doesn’t lay on the pathos quite as thickly as Pixar, but succeeds in making you care for the characters. When we get to see each of the animal characters reunited with his or her human, we’re reminded why we love our pets. Although, as in the “Toy Story” films, the main premise is that the characters have complicated lives when the humans aren’t around, what we really learn from “The Secret Life of Pets” is that they need us as much as we need them.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.