Look, not every big animated film needs to be Pixar. I think we string the CGI-animated films along by expecting everyone to be super deep and insightful and innovative. I swear this is not an anti-intellectual thing.
I mean, even Chuck Jones wasn’t always Duck Amuck! And What’s Opera, Doc. Sometimes he just made Tom and Jerry cartoons. Simple fun can be just as important in the medium of animation, and that’s where The Secret Life of Pets really excels. It’s pretty simple, but it does pretty simple well.
In a remarkably close hew to classic Toy Story, The Secret Life of Pets asks the question: “What if pets talked when we weren’t around?” In an even closer hew, the story follows Max (Louis C.K.), the favorite pet of owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). But that position is challenged when Katie adopts Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a rough and inconsiderate dog who Max does not like. One unfortunate incident separates the two from Katie and in the path of a series of radical anti-human animal activists, the Flushed Pets, led by Snowball (Kevin Hart).
Yep, the outcast toys, the jealousy, the getting separated, the learning to like each other and share their human owner? It’s all pretty much Toy Story. But I’m a big fan of the idea that there is nothing inherently bad with unoriginal ideas, and that it all rests in the execution.
It’s a remarkably amusing little film. The jokes fly fast and furious and are grounded in more character than one would expect from Illumination, largely famous at this point for the societal virus that is the Minions. Plenty of puns and animal jokes delivered well by its incredibly celebrity dense voice cast.
I can be mixed on stunt casting-esque celebrity voice acting in these films. Partially because it tends to shove the actual hard working voice actors out of the big ticket films, and partially because it tends to be lazy, just leaning on the recognizability of the voice over anything like…dynamics or inflections or voice power.
It actually sort of works here though. The Secret Life of Pets commits itself to be unchallenging, simple enjoyment, and it seems to trade on those celebrity voices to give their characters a little extra easy enjoyment. Hannibal Buress is using his stand-up voice to give his unique blend of easygoing and crazy to Buddy the dachshund. Dana his Grumpy Old Man voice for Pops, so you know the character, and it makes you giggle.
The only one playing against type is Louis C.K., who’s definitely playing a happier and peppier character than…he ever has. His performance carries the film more than you would think, and boy am I going to miss being allowed to like him if rumblings from inside Hollywood are true.
Yeah. Anyway, children’s film.
It’s also a very sweet movie. At the core of it all, it’s a movie about simple familial love, unconditional and unchanging. It’s like most children’s films, it’s about things we all kind of get, but that the kids are going through right now. You love your parents and your parents love you, and nothing will change that, not even a new sibling. And there’s something immensely satisfying to see everyone getting home and loving their pets.
I don’t have much to say. It’s a pretty simple movie, paper-thin and fun, but in a good way. Its script gives us a group of great characters with great little payoffs in a world that’s nice and colorful, very pleasant. Ultimately, an hour and a half to sit down and get away with a world where everything kind of works out. The fact is that right now, we need something that lets us just get away, and The Secret Life of Pets offers that much.
p.s.: Headbanging Poodle is my everything.