The first act of The Secret Life of Pets leans on a style of humor that we might call “anthropomorphic observational comedy.” That is, the gags involve talking animals, mostly cats and dogs, behaving in recognizably feline or canine ways, but, you know, talking. Think of the dogs in Pixar’s Up breaking off in midsentence with “Squirrel!” Or the seagulls in Finding Nemo crying, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” You know what I mean.
Many of these early jokes are in the trailer. Our hero, a terrier named Max voiced by Louis C.K., sinks into despondency the moment his mistress, a young New Yorker named Katie, walks out the door to work. “I miss her so much,” he moans. When, a moment later, Katie unexpectedly reappears, Max is as overjoyed as if she were returning at the end of the day — but after grabbing her phone, she’s gone again, leaving Max to forlornly repeat his mantra of sorrow.
There’s Lake Bell as a laid-back, obese cat named Chloe, who calmly tells an upset Max, “I’m your friend, Max! And as your friend, I gotta tell you: I don’t care about you or your problems.” In another bit, Chloe gets into her owner’s fridge and struggles with the temptation to tear into a roast turkey, repeatedly turning away before yielding and devouring it. This gag should have gone to a dog; struggling with temptation is not a cat thing.
This style of cartoon animal comedy would sustain an animated short — one potentially more promising than the exhausted Minions short, Mower Minions, which plays before The Secret Life of Pets.
This being a feature film, a story of sorts is needed to sustain the 90-odd-minute running time. Alas, the folks at Illumination Entertainment, their debut effort Despicable Me aside, have so far shown no hint of aptitude in constructing a story.
Like last year’s Minions, The Secret Life of Pets doesn’t so much follow a narrative arc as lurch from one half-baked idea to another. Both films play as if they were stitched together from every haphazard notion tossed out in an early brainstorming session, with no subsequent editing or refining.
Minions went from a Villain-Con trade convention for villains in Orlando to an Arthurian subplot in London, in which one of the Minions pulled out the Sword in the Stone, briefly becoming king of England. (What?)
In The Secret Life of Pets, Max and his shaggy new roommate, a Newfoundland named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), stumble upon a rogue gang of castaway animals called the Flushed Pets — a tattooed pig, assorted snakes and lizards, a crocodile and their leader, a maniacal bunny named Snowball, voiced by Kevin Hart — who live in the sewers and hate human beings. When the Flushed Pets discover that Max and Duke aren’t the “owner killers” they claim to be, Snowball orders them killed.
If that seems a little dark, it’s not the only thing. The initial conflict that kicks off the story occurs when Katie rescues Duke from the pound and brings him home to her apartment, prompting Max to jealous territoriality. Duke seems friendly in an overbearing way, but he’s really a passive-aggressive bully, and it doesn’t take much prickliness from Max to bring out the aggression.
When Max briefly finds a way to exert dominance over Duke, the bigger dog eventually responds with reckless violence, disposing of Max with what he hopes will be finality. It’s like a grimmer riff on Woody’s jealousy of Buzz Lightyear, but with real malice on Buzz’s part, culminating in one of them deliberately knocking the other out the window in order to get rid of them forever.
Eventually the tension between Max and Duke peters out, as the dogs bond amid a shared crisis. The problem is: There’s never any reckoning over the earlier offenses (as there would be in a Pixar film).
Duke never says, “Gosh, I’m sorry for stealing your bed and blanket and food when Katie first brought me home. I was such a jerk.” Max never says, “Well, I could have tried to make you feel at home instead of treating you like a trespassing bum.” (Remember Woody’s moment of truth in Sid’s bedroom? “I’m the one that should be strapped to that rocket.”)
Instead, Duke says something like, “When I first met you, I was like, ‘I don’t know if I like this guy,’ but now I really like you!” Yeah, that’s not enough.
There are way too many characters, most of whom make little impact. Of Max’s large circle of friends, including a pug, a dachshund and a parakeet (Bobby Moynihan, Hannibal Buress and Tara Strong, respectively) — all of whom come to his rescue when he and Duke become lost — only Chloe the cat and Jenny Slate’s Pomeranian Gidget, who has a secret crush on Max, stand out as characters. (The dachshund gets a couple of nice visual moments.)
The rescue mission also eventually includes a guinea pig voiced by director Chris Renaud, a hawk voiced by Albert Brooks (Nemo’s dad isn’t the voice I would have chosen for a predator, but whatever) and Dana Carvey as an elderly, crippled basset hound whose back half rides in a rickshaw-like wagon (presumably inspired by, or stolen from, a similar character in Babe: Pig in the City).
Then there’s the large cast of antagonists, the Flushed Pets, led by vicious Snowball. The Flushed Pets are a bad idea, a weird curiosity that might have made a quirky detour, like Ice Age’s survivalist dodos or Finding Nemo’s 12-step sharks, but shouldn’t have been allowed to cover so much of the story. Can you imagine if Finding Nemo were largely about Bruce trying to eat Marlin?
Spoiler alert, I guess: Like Duke, Snowball is eventually redeemed without rigor, joining forces with Max in a pinch and ultimately reverting to cuddly type in, well, a cuddle. I get that Snowball is psychotic and not really responsible for his actions, but a villain that unhinged, who gets redeemed in the end, needs some kind of emotional character arc, not just a narrative about-face.
Look, I’m not saying I didn’t chuckle a few times. Certainly the youngsters who laughed contentedly throughout Minions will laugh throughout The Secret Lives of Pets too. Cheap redemption notwithstanding, it’s a basically harmless, inoffensive, colorful diversion for family audiences that won’t leave you too much worse off than you were going in.
There are some caveats. The scene in which Gidget plays bad cop to Steve Coogan’s tough alley cat, slapping him until he talks, is supposed to be funny because she’s a pampered, fluffy Pomeranian, but I don’t find strong-arm interrogation scenes funny any more.
On the other hand, I did laugh out loud at a scene that highlights not the humorous foibles of our pets, but the humorous foibles of their owners, specifically the human weakness for funny cat videos. If The Secret Lives of Pets doesn’t have teeth enough to bite the hand that feeds it, it manages at least one affectionate, roguish lick.
Caveat Spectator: Some menace, slapstick and mild action violence; mild rude humor; a couple of winkingly averted crude terms. Kids and up.