Meaghan McDonough ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Taking a tip from their competitor Pixar, Universal’s Illumination Entertainment asks a question reminiscent of the one begged by the Toy Story franchise: what happens to the things we love when we aren’t around to love them? The Secret Life of Pets explores this phenomenon through following the house kept furry (and scaly, and feathery) friends around New York City, giving the audience a laugh with every new shenanigan and poking fun at humans along the way. Starring Louis C.K. and with a star-studded supporting cast, the film is expected to surpass Finding Dory’s opening weekend. Will that be the case? The cash is still being counted, but whatever the case, this victory would be undeserved.
Louis C.K stars as Max, the adorably loyal and surprisingly self-absorbed dog with an immense sense of ownership over his owner, Katie. Katie (Ellie Kemper), is a well-meaning millennial living alone with her dog in Manhattan. According to Max, Katie and him have the perfect thing going.
But Max’s reality is torn to shreds when Katie comes home with Duke (Eric Stonestreet), an enormous fluff ball of cuddly aggression with no discernible boundaries. When their conflict comes to a head, they end up getting lost in New York City and are forced to work together to find their way home. Meanwhile, Max’s friends Gidget (Jenny Slate), Buddy (Hannibal Buress), Mel (Bobby Moynihan) and other pets from Max’s apartment building discover he’s missing and decide to go after him. There’s also a gang of human-hating animals, headed by a bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart) that live in the sewers that both groups of house pets run into.
So really, it’s just a whole bunch of animals voiced by great comedians running around New York City. Unfortunately, despite some really cinematic animation choices, the film has little else to offer. It’s a simple premise designed for a simple audience: young kids. Where Pixar or DreamWorks usually offer a bit more thematic depth, it seems that Illumination isn’t quite yet ready to break away from their preference for slapstick comedy and cartoon violence. It’s an hour and thirty minutes of animals getting squashed or stretched by New York City, with some situational humor thrown in. It’s basically a Tom and Jerry marathon.
It doesn’t even make good use of the comedians in its cast. Max is given the most dialogue, yet C.K.’s typical melancholic grouchiness is lost to the simplistic sarcasm of the pampered, privileged pooch character he plays. The funniest of the group is Kevin Hart as Snowball the Bunny, who runs away with the film every time he’s on screen. Never mind Kevin Hart’s raspy, over-the-top voice coming out a fluffy white rabbit—that alone could earn laughs; the humor thickens with the plot as Snowball becomes the main antagonist. Otherwise, the comedians aren’t given enough dialogue to make do. Jenny Slate’s characteristic annoying voice acting gives Gidget a few funny moments, but she’s weighed down by repetitive dialogue and lacking character development.
This feeds into the final and probably most grating failure on the part of the film: the staggering amount of sexism and gratuitous heterosexuality packed into a movie that lacks developed human characters. There are four heterosexual relationships established, none of which amount to anything. The most developed is the one between Gidget and Max. Gidget’s unrequited love for Max is the driving force behind rescuing him—as opposed to pretty much all the other characters, who want to rescue Max simply because they’re friends. There’s also an older male basset hound that hits on a female cat; a kiss between Gidget and Snowball; and then, finally, two hipster humans flirting at a dog park. None of these relationships really amount to anything and only the Snowball and Gidget kiss is really worth a laugh. What’s worse is the fact that Gidget goes completely unnoticed by Max throughout the movie until she beats up some animals that are chasing him. The messages being sent are mixed, and it seems like an unnecessary tack on to a movie seemingly designed for four to ten year olds.
Overall, this is a movie very much designed for kids. While lots of other animated movies will offer subtle jokes for adults to have the ‘in’ on, The Secret Life of Pets doesn’t offer that relief. And if you’re a kid in the theater watching it, that’s okay. If you’re an adult who just wants to sit and not think and not have your kids bother you for an hour and a half, that’s okay too. But if you’re looking for something to entertain both you and your child, possibly give you a touch of nostalgia and maybe a moral lesson—The Secret Life of Pets isn’t the movie to do that. Tastefully animated but just shy of being as funny as an episode of Looney Tunes, The Secret Life of Pets simply fails to reach the caliber expected of modern day animated features.
Overall Grade: C
Watch The Trailer: