‘The Secret Life of Pets’ (2016): A toy story with animals

Scroll through your social media feed and you’ll undoubtedly see more than one post showing a pet doing what pets do. But what do they do when you’re not around?

By Jason Hink

The 2016 animated feature, The Secret Life of Pets, from Illumination Entertainment and Universal Studios, seeks to answer that question in humorous fashion.

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Max (voice talent of Louis C.K.), a Jack Russell Terrier, is bummed when his human owner Katie (voice of Ellie Kemper) leaves for the day. While she’s at work, he hangs out with other pets in their Manhattan building, which includes cat Chloe (Lake Bell), pug Mel (Bobby Moynihan), dachshund Buddy (Hannibal Buress), and budgerigar (that’s a bird) Sweetpea.

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When Katie adopts Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a large shaggy dog, Max becomes jealous of the attention he receives. The dogs eventually tire of each other and have a big blowout in the park leading to their capture by Animal Control.

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They’re eventually rescued by a white rabbit named Snowball (Kevin Hart), the leader of “The Flushed Pets” – a gang of sewer-dwelling, human-hating animals. When Gidget (Jenny Slate), a Spanish, soap opera-loving white Pomeranian who also lives in the apartment, realizes Max has disappeared, she spurs the rest of the gang into action to rescue him. Max, after all, is Gidget’s crush.

Like many modern, animated films, the fun with The Secret Life of Pets is in how director Chris Renaud crafts an adventure that adults can enjoy alongside their children. The kids in the audience are pulled in by the bright colors and adventure while mom and dad can chuckle at the sly humor thrown in by writers Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio.

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And it’s this humor that makes the film zip by. At 87 minutes, it’s not long to begin with (thankfully). But by the time the credits rolled, I was surprised that nearly 90 minutes had passed.

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Case in point: After Max’s human owner leaves for the day, we’re treated to a string of jokes poking fun at the idiosyncrasies of our favorite pets. In an adjacent apartment, all the pets gather to “party” while the humans are gone, and just as they’re being depicted as smart, well-adjusted animals, the film shifts into a quick-moving parody sequence that proves even the smartest pets still fall prey to their stereotypes. For instance, before hitting up the party, Max tells his animal pals he’s going to sit in front of the door and wait for Katie to return, as dogs often do. And there he sits. And sits. Meanwhile, Chloe, an obese, lazy tabby cat who doesn’t care to move, suddenly bursts into action when Sweetpea (the bird) starts waving a laser pointer around the room.

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Who hasn’t experienced seeing actions such as these from their real pets? I won’t spoil all the gags, but they’re fun to watch. Like teenagers who throw a parties when their parents are away, these animals just wanna have fun, too. It’s cute seeing smart, humanized, English-speaking animals oblivious to their tendencies, and the filmmakers do a good job of poking fun at it.

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Comedian Louis C.K. does a good job portraying Max as an affable, laid back pooch, voicing the character with just the right amount of pretentiousness. Anyone who’s watched one of his comedy acts can see why he was chosen for the parthe generally comes off as a laid back everyman, an approachable dude who doesn’t take himself too seriously. Max exhibits these traits as well.

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But stealing the show is the tough-as-nails gang leader Snowball, a white rabbit voiced by Kevin Hart. Snowball’s quest to rid the world of humans is hilarious thanks to Hart’s gangster-wannabe delivery. Snowball wants so hard to be seen as a badass, but you can’t help but laugh at his antics and see that, deep down, he has a heart of gold. Hart is perfect at playing this kind of comedy and it translates well to the animated world as well.

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Some critics saw The Secret Life of Pets as a rehash of the original Toy Story, and I get the comparison: Two dogs vying for the attention of their owner go off the tracks into a life-or-death adventure in The Secret Life of Pets, whereas two toys (the old model and the new) vying for the affection of their owner go off the tracks into a life-or-death adventure in Toy Story. But what of it? There’s enough variety and character variation to make the movie enjoyable as a formula exercise.

And coming off producing 2015’s Minions, director Renaud by this time was no stranger to delivering quick hits of animated dopamine. He’d already directed other successful animated features, including the Despicable Me films, and followed up Pets with a voice-acting credit the same year in Universal’s Sing.

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The Secret Life of Pets was an important film for Universal’s Illumination Entertainment; it was the highest-grossing original animated film not produced by Disney or Pixar. It finished 2016 ranked fourth at the US domestic box office with a $384 million haul, coming in behind that year’s box office champ, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ($532M), 2nd-place finisher Finding Dory ($486M) and Captain America: Civil War ($408M).

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While I caught the movie at an outdoor “movie in the park” screening projected on a giant bounce house-looking blow-up screen, collectors can find The Secret Life of Pets on Blu-ray. A sequel, The Secret Life of Pets 2, was released in June of 2019.

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