What does your labradoodle do when you go out to work? Do your turtles only wish they could escape their tank or could they roam the house all along? These are questions the title The Secret Life of Pets raises, though the actual film’s focus is not on answering them. It’s ultimately another family-friendly adventure film centered on a duo of New York City pets struggling to find their way home. Though it is just as beautiful, funny and undemanding as you’d expect from the creators of Despicable Me parts 1 and 2, it lacks truly compelling drama between its leads, Duke and Max. As a result, it's more of a colorful diversion than a memorable experience.
That’s not to say there aren’t strong points in Illusion Entertainment’s fifth film. There are a ton of interesting supporting characters that get generous screentime and are voiced by many likeable actors, such as Albert Brooks as Tiberius, a hawk with an insatiable appetite for live prey, Lake Bell as a stereotype fat cat and the bonkers Kevin Hart as Snowball, a white rabbit that leads a cult of abandoned pets determined to wipe out humanity. Characters like these come together naturally in their pursuit of Max and Duke, voiced by Louis C.K. and Eric Stonestreet of Modern Family fame, respectively, whose rivalry for the affections of their owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) send their domesticated butts into the streets as strays and captured by the Dog Pound.
This presents the film with more interesting opportunities, though it often fails to explore them in any sort of meaningful way. Duke is a former stray that the loveable Katie brings home one day, much to the chagrin of the possessive Max. They don’t get along one bit because Max plots to get him kicked out. By the time the film sends them into the aforementioned streets as strays as a result of their bickering, the film halts any progress in their relationship for at least a half an hour, and later attempts at strengthening their relationship feel shallow and derivate because of the inconsistency, culminating in a finale that feels less believable than it wants to be. Unlike Pixar, whose strength lies in gradual character development through chemistries with varied characters, ever-changing environments and hard-hitting plot twists, The Secret Life of Pets struggles to sell growth between them in the middle act because of so much going on around them. When they must team up to find their way home, for example, the film diverts to a useless gimmick – a fantasized “it’s like we’re on mushrooms because of how good these sausages are” sequence – rather than growing their bond.
However, embracing its own simplicity allows its parts to shine and still make it worthy of a viewing. Though the actual cult disappointedly doesn’t have a plot to destroy all humans with, Snowball the rabbit is scene-stealing in every frame he’s in, especially when leading his henchmen to commit grand theft auto. Gidget (Jenny Slate) and the other pets offer funny, touching and heroic moments throughout the 90-minute running time before and while they search for Max and Duke, and shed some light on a secret life after all, which range from hard-partying with death metal to using electronic whisks as an automated masseuse. All these come together to make every character an interesting presence and, with the inclusion of fast-paced chase sequences, keeps the film consistently entertaining for kids and adults alike.
The Secret Life of Pets may be more a beautiful diversion than an animated gem, but it’s consistently entertaining in many ways and makes good use of its large likeable cast. Kevin Hart is the standout as Snowball, and while Louis C.K. is fine, he is rather one-note. Still, despite the inconsistencies in character development and a somewhat misleading title, it will leave you extra appreciative of your own domesticated loved ones waiting for you at home.