The Secret Life of Pets July 11, 2016

Because Zootopia set the bar so high this year in terms of family entertainment, everything, even works like the highly anticipated Finding Dory, seems to pale in comparison.  That’s good news for Zootopia but bad news for anything following in its shadow without as much on its mind: had it been released in a year without an animated film as intelligent as the latter, The Secret Life of Pets might have stood as something more than forgettable escapist fare with kiddies on the brain.


But while its slightness is a bummer, it’s not a complete distraction — despite its steadfast reliance on ambulatory physical comedy and altogether goofiness, The Secret Life of Pets is still amusing and mindlessly fun, agreeable characteristics for quality family diversion.  Helpful, too, is its red-blooded, meticulous animation (its characters are awesomely spry), and its voice cast, which, more or less, assimilates some of the finest working comedic talents of the now.


Louis C.K. heads The Secret Life of Pets as Max, a perky terrier living an idyllic life in the apartment of Katie, a working girl (voiced by Ellie Kemper).  Though opposed to his owner’s long work schedule, which sees her missing from the flat for much longer than a bird-headed pup can handle, Max finds solace in the other pets living in the complex.  Boredom is never a part of his afternoon, and by the time his human walks through the front door ready to unwind after a tiring day, so’s he.


Max likes his routine, and so he’s a little peeved when Katie unexpectedly brings home another dog.  To Max’s disgust, it’s a slobbery Golden Retriever named Duke (voiced by Eric Stonestreet), whose massive size and dopey disposition are major turn-offs.  The purchase of the friendly beast was on a whim, sure, but Katie is certain that her household’s best feature could use some company.  


Max isn’t so certain that he’s ready to feel the love.  He’s so used to having both the house and his owner’s affections to himself that he’s not so committed to the prospect of sharing; straight away, he goes into alpha mode in an attempt to prove his apparently kept-hidden dominance.  But his avoidable clashing takes a turn for the worse when, when at a dog park, the off-leash Duke drags and drops his new brother in a foreign part of the city in a clumsy attempt to ditch him.


Bad idea.  Following a run-in with some vicious alleycats, Max and Duke get hopelessly lost in the asphalt jungle that is New York, making enemies out of some ownerless toughies (led by a superb Kevin Hart) in the process.  But Max’s dedicated friends back home come in handy after they quickly notice Katie’s unusually vacant apartment.  Almost immediately, they empathically begin searching for their long lost pal, taking risky turn after risky turn in order to safely locate their most devoted friend.  Of course, all will be resolved by the time the building’s owners come back from work.


Clocking at a trim (and expertly fast-paced) ninety minutes, The Secret Life of Pets is a proficient comedy caper perhaps a little too harmless to seem like anything besides (sturdy) filler between Zootopia and the next great animation picture of 2016.  Without emotional tugs or flaw abiding ticks to allow us to see the characters as something other than mouth pieces for family friendly witticisms, the movie is pretty insubstantial and, as a result of its unwaveringly cheery personality, more a comedic exercise than a consequential film.


Still, its animation is wondrous, and its voice acting, especially by the bravura Hart and the chipper Jenny Slate, is show-stopping.  So while high expectations can be a deadly force, and while Zootopia can be an unstoppable hotbed of bias, The Secret Life of Pets is, nevertheless, a likable rag.  You can take it or leave it, but withstanding its charisma is unthinkable. B