Rated PG for action and some rude humor.
Running time: 91 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
I realize I’m egregiously late in writing about “The Secret Life of Pets” — or any recent movie, for that matter — but I’m playing catch-up after being out of town with my family for a couple of weeks. So, apologies. But I wanted to get a few thoughts down quickly, especially because I had the pleasure of seeing “The Secret Life of Pets” while I was away.
It’s always fun to see movies in other places. I’m so accustomed to the ArcLight, The Grove and the AMC Century City, not to mention all the various screening rooms and revival houses around town. We’re truly spoiled having so many options here in Los Angeles. While on vacation for two weeks in Boston, New Hampshire and Montreal, Nicolas and I caught the first possible showing near us: 7pm on a Thursday at the Cinemagic theater in Hooksett, N.H., where an entire auditorium sold out, requiring the opening of another one. (We also caught the “Ghostbusters” remake in Montreal, where, at first, we accidentally went to the theater where it was playing in French as “SOS Fantomes.” But that’s another story for another time.)
Nic has been seriously pumped for “The Secret Life of Pets” for months now. We are a Minion-friendly household, in case you weren’t aware, and the marketing for “Pets,” which comes from the same production company (Illumination Entertainment), made it look as if it had a similarly adorable, anarchic humor. It’s actually the summer movie I’d been looking forward to most myself, between the impossibly cute characters, the strong voice cast (Louis C.K., Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart, Lake Bell, Albert Brooks) and the clever premise.
Yes, it’s essentially “Toy Story,” only with dogs and cats. But still — who doesn’t like that idea? And who hasn’t wondered what their pets do all day while they’re away? (We don’t wonder, however. We have a 14-year-old Boston terrier who’s deaf and has one tooth left in his head. We know what he does all day: He sleeps on the couch.)
It is an incredibly simple yet irresistible idea for a movie. It’s also exactly what you think it’s going to be — no more, no less. But the film from co-directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney is so perky and agreeable and eager to please — not unlike our own pets — that it’s hard not to be charmed. No, it does not have the thematic depth, narrative complexity or emotional power of a Pixar movie. Most other animated offerings don’t. But it’s beautiful to look at in terms of color, lighting and texture, it zips along nicely and it’s a totally delightful way to spend the afternoon with your family.
There is indeed a plot, albeit a thin one, which relies heavily on amusing sight gags. (Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch wrote the script.) Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) is an enthusiastic terrier mix who’s fiercely loyal to his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). The two of them have a cozy life together in their tiny Manhattan apartment, and when Katie leaves for work in the morning, Max is content to sit by the door and wait for her to return. He also has friends who keep him company through neighboring windows, including Gidget (Slate), a posh, puffy Pomerian who’s secretly in love with him; Mel (Bobby Moynihan), a nutty pug who’s constantly on the alert for squirrels; and Chloe (Bell), a surly, portly cat who has a love-hate relationship with the food in the refrigerator.
One evening, the kindhearted Katie comes back with another dog: the garrulous and galumphing Duke (Eric Stonestreet), who proceeds to make himself right at home to Max’s shock and dismay. But then the two of them end up off-leash together, no thanks to their distracted dog walker, and must rely on each other to get back home. Along the way, they cross paths with an underground group of homeless former pets — a truly random menagerie led by an insanely cute (but also just plain insane) bunny rabbit named Snowball (Hart), who’s hell-bent on revolution.
Manic animal antics ensue through the streets, alleyways, sewers and rivers of New York City. And that’s about all there is to it. Snowball wants Max and Duke to join his crusade, but they kind of like being domesticated. The biggest question isn’t whether they’ll ever get home again but how — something they figure out when their friends come to rescue them with the reluctant help of a hawk voiced with rich, gravelly menace by Brooks.
He is, of course, a standout among the cast, but my favorite of all is Slate. And this is something I’ve actually thought and talked about quite a bit since seeing “The Secret Life of Pets,” because Nicolas likes to hash through plot points after we’ve seen a movie together, and he keeps asking me who my favorite character is. It’s Gidget. (He likes Max best, in case you’re wondering, and Louis C.K.’s trademark smarts and self-deprecation are just right for the role.) Slate’s husky earnestness gives the film real warmth, and I love the fact that her character looks sweet and small but she’s actually quite brave and ballsy.
And you’ve gotta love a hero’s journey in which the real hero ends up being a woman.