Movie Review: ‘THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS’ imagines humorous, adorable day in pets’ lives

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS | 90 min | PG
Director: Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud
Cast: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin HartJenny SlateEllie KemperAlbert BrooksLake BellDana CarveyHannibal BuressBobby Moynihan and Steve Coogan

At one time or another, anyone who has ever had a pet had weird fantasies about what their animal children do behind their backs. If you are an adult, it’s something like these pets have seen you host a wine party so many times that they judge you on the regular. But, when you’re a kid, the imagination takes you to far out adventures, as your little best friend goes out to be with other pets. Both of these are just ways to cope with the guilt of leaving them behind, but that’s neither here nor there.

At any rate, the fact that there haven’t been thousands of movies revolving around this concept is kind of astounding, what with the studios propensity to beat a dead horse. Maybe that’ll all change soon, as THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS comes on like gangbusters and doesn’t let that smile leave your face.

Max (Louis C.K.) starts off the show with a narrative montage of how he and Katie (Ellie Kemper) are the best combination of owner & dog ever…their love is the best! While he waits for Katie to return home, the audience is shown a playful montage of what pets do when they’re home alone. Max hangs out with his friends: Mel (Bobby Moynihan), Buddy (Hannibal Burress), a bird named Sweet Pea, and a fat cat named Chloe; also, the tiny Gidget (Jenny Slate) pines for Max from across the street.

Katie (Ellie Kempler) brings home a new dog (Eric Stonestreet) to play with Max (Louis C.K.). Photo courtesy of Illumination Entertainment.

Katie (Ellie Kemper) brings home a new dog (Eric Stonestreet) to play with Max (Louis C.K.). Photo courtesy of Illumination Entertainment.

When Katie comes home this time, however, she brings home the giant mutt Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Max finds this situation unacceptable and the two are soon at odds. While the dog walker takes them out the next day, their spat causes them to get lost, and must find their way back before Katie gets home.

Along the way they find themselves having to fend off a gang of unwanted pets that live in the underground, led by a fluffy bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart). The Flushed Pets, as they call themselves, are out for revenge against pet owners and their leash lovers. While Max and Duke try to survive, it’s up to Gidget and the gang to help them out!

It’s impossible not to like THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS. There is a brightness and vibrancy to its overall presentation, which has become a trademark for Illumination Entertainment, creators of the DESPICABLE ME franchise. Chris Renaud and company have a way of making sure that the movie doesn’t go out of its range, and that it plays out like a children’s book. This light fare is punctuated by the jazz-like whimsy of Alexandre Desplat’s score, which keeps the mood upbeat and optimistic.

As much as fun as everything is, it’s impossible not to notice a couple of annoyances here and there. They can depend on score too much to dictate our emotions, instead of letting the dialogue do the work. And while a lot of the humor is fantastic (Kevin Hart slays as Snowball… “R.I.P. RICKY!”), it can use unnecessarily crude sight gags that are groan-inducing. Universal also manages to kill the constructed world of its animated version of New York with product placement that would make Adam Sandler jealous.

Of course these things are nit-picking, and most moviegoers will notice it and move on because the movie is just too much fun. There’s no need for any underlying commentary or upfront adolescent metaphor. THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS knows what it wants to do and that’s give your imagination some credence. Personality goes a long way with animated fare, and this one has so much it can’t help but be memorable family fun.

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS opens everywhere Thursday, in both 3D and 2D formats.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.