For a split second, you might reasonably be gulled into thinking The Secret Life of Pets is a Louis C.K. movie: The film begins as he monologues in voiceover, waxing effusive about how great his owner is before segueing into pining after her as she leaves him home alone for the day, but let’s backtrack for a second. C.K.’s character is a terrier, Max, who happens to be very, very adorable and who loves Katie (Ellie Kemper), the woman who adopted him as a scrappy lil’ puppy, to pieces. This in itself is an incongruity. Louis C.K. is not a very, very adorable animated dog type of guy. He is a “life sucks” type of guy.
So what’s he doing in a movie about pets, and the mischief they get up to when we’re not around? The Secret Life of Pets’ opening feels like a kid-friendly version of C.K.’s landmark sitcom, Louie, what with all the sad sack bellyaching about a person of the opposite sex, and you wonder if the film will continue in that vein by making it all about Max and Katie. But once Katie walks out the door of her apartment, she’s pretty much out of the movie for good, leaving behind only Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a shaggy and ample Newfoundland who Katie rescued from the pound. That’s fine, too; once they’re left alone, the story settles into a groove where Max and Duke look like they’ll compete for Katie’s affections. Listening to C.K. fret about a girl through the filter of a dog for 80 minutes doesn’t sound awful.
But The Secret Life of Pets isn’t that movie. The film dispenses with its title’s promise in a quick montage and wanders off the rails from there: Duke and Max’s canine rivalry eventually lands them in an animal control van, which they’re sprung from by Snowball (Kevin Hart, his mania amped up so high you can hear his neck veins bulging in the recording booth), a fluffy, psychotic bunny with a serious beef against humans. Snowball, we learn, was discarded by his owners, and has assembled a gang of similarly abandoned critters to overthrow the human race in retribution. Concurrent to this plot line, Gidget (Jenny Slate), a Pomeranian who harbors a sweet, barmy crush on Max, notices his absence and collects her neighboring pets—a dachshund (Hannibal Buress), a pug (Bobby Moynihan), a tabby (Lake Bell), a paraplegic basset hound (Dana Carvey), and a hawk (Albert Brooks)—to find him.
Shockingly, there’s a point in The Secret Life of Pets where C.K. becomes invisible. You might even forget he’s in the cast at all. Whenever the film focuses on him, it becomes a grind. Whenever it focuses on Gidget, on the other hand, it’s a delight. Most of the credit for that goes to Slate, who understands how best to employ her voice for humor’s sake. Her squeaky, cracking intonation adds value to Gidget’s flaky naïveté and blends well with Brooks’ more gravelly timbre. (It’s worth noting that Brooks is the only member of Slate’s support squad who is given any material worth a damn. Apart from stray one-liners, Buress and Moynihan don’t contribute much, while Bell is asked only to be apathetic.) Her plot happens to strike just the right tone, too. The Secret Life of Pets wants to be a wacky kids movie. Gidget, hapless, lovable, and totally scary when she’s mad, ups the film’s wacky quotient all on her own.
Take that praise as literally as possible. Without Gidget, the movie is a drag. It isn’t for lack of trying, but lack of planning. The Secret Life of Pets is the latest joint from Illumination Entertainment, the animation studio behind the Despicable Me films that has thusly cursed us to endure the aimless hijinks of those ubiquitous, grating, lemon-hued Minions. The Secret Life of Pets, directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney, inclines more toward the Minions style of kitchen-sink slapstick than the focused parody of Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2. Oddly, Renaud didn’t direct Minions; his partner on the Despicable Me movies, Pierre Coffin, took the helm alongside Kyle Balda for that one, which makes the frenzied desperation in The Secret Life of Pets’ comedy a bit of a puzzle. You get the feeling that Renaud and Cheney threw every gag they could think of into the script in hopes it would all cohere together on its own.
Surprise—it doesn’t. That’s what happens when you don’t self-edit, boys and girls. The film is too familiar for its own good: The story is a watered-down compression of the Toy Story films, the character beats announce themselves from several miles away, and nobody bothered writing more than a fraction of the jokes because the rest have all been written before. Dogs are dumb as bricks but loyal in their DNA. Cats are aloof jerks, but watching them flip out over laser pointers is funny. (Hey, did you also know that dogs hate squirrels? Oh, and wait till the characters start busting out jokes about Brooklyn real estate and kvetching about hipsters. Riveting.) There’s no inspiration here, just prosaism. Not every animation outfit can be Pixar, of course, but they should have more imagination than this.
Directors: Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney
Writers: Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio
Starring: Louis C.K., Jenny Slate, Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Albert Brooks, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Ellie Kemper
Release Date: July 8, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.