The Secret Life of Pets commits multiple sins — it rips off other movies, there’s no character development, and the plot is completely predictable — but its biggest sin is that, except for a two minute montage, we really don’t learn anything about the secret life of pets.
With more speaking character than the average elementary school play, in the opening of The Secret Life of Pets we meet a dog named Max and his owner, Katie. Max doesn’t know why Katie disappears for eight hours a day (she goes to work), but when she does, he hangs out with other pets in the apartment including Chloe the cat, Mel (a pug dog), Hannibal (a dachshund), Gidget (a pomeranian), Tara Strong (a parakeet) and a perpetually lost guinea pig named Chris Renaud.
Max’s world is pretty great until the day Katie comes home with Duke, a big brown shaggy dog. Max dislikes the concept of competing with Duke for Katie’s attention, and comes up with a plan to get rid of Duke. The plan backfires, and the two of them get lost away from home. If this sounds identical to the plot of Toy Story to you, well, you’re not alone, as The Secret Life of Pets pretty much apes the far superior Pixar film beat for beat.
While running away from the dog catchers, Max and Duke run into a gang of alley cats, and while running away from the cats they run into a rough gang of ex-pets straight from the Isle of Misfits. The gang, led by an ex-magician’s stage rabbit named Snowball, seeks revenge against humans. Max and Duke temporarily win their adulation by convincing the gang that they killed their former owners, but when their charade falls apart, they run some more.
While Max and Duke are busy running from a rabbit, a crocodile, a tattooed pig and their entire gang (including the alley cats), Gidget, Chloe, Mel, Hannibal, Tara, and Chris (who by now have picked up Pops (an old dog in a wheelchair) and Tiberius the Hawk) continue to search for them while they all continue to run from the dog catchers. Pets’ secret lives involves running a lot.
The movie both falls apart and shows its true colors in a single scene in which Duke (somehow, in Manhattan) runs across his previous owner’s home. When he arrives, a cat on the front porch informs him that his previous owner died. To back up the claim, the new homeowner pulls into the driveway and barks at them. Then, the dogs leave. In Pixar’s hands, this is a tear-filled moment. It’s the opening to Up, or the ending of Toy Story 3. Instead, Max is all “u mad bro?” and Duke is all “naw y0” and that’s it. It literally could have been the emotional pinnacle of the film; instead, it’s over as quickly as it begins.
And really, the whole movie is like that. There’s no character growth, no arc of change, and barely a plot. It’s literally a series of (admittedly beautifully) animated scenes. As each scene ends the next one begins, and it didn’t take long for me to cross my fingers and hope that the next one would be the last.
If you’re thinking “perhaps you are not the target audience for this film,” you are correct. To my right in the theater were half a dozen kids aged 5-7 who screamed in delight every time an animal spoke. To my left were two women in their sixties who laughed at every single joke, even when they weren’t jokes. When we see a dog adopted from a box with the words “FREE PUPPY” written one the side, the women erupted in laughter, slapping their knees while repeating, “free puppy!” If that’s the funniest joke you’ve ever heard, run, not walk, to the nearest theater.
Pixar and Dreamworks have historically done a decent job of creating animated films that appeal to both children and adults. Illumination Entertainment, on the other hand, have created a film that will appeal to anyone under the age of 5 and cat ladies over the age of 55. For every Up, Toy Story and Shrek there’s “that one movie that had a lizard” and “one of those ant movies.” A year or two from now kids will say, “Remember that one animated dog film?”
With any luck, you won’t.