The Secret Life of Pets is the latest animation from Illumination Entertainment, which also brought us Minions and Despicable Me, but whereas they were smart, funny, charming and original, this is not that smart, not that funny, not that charming and not that original. It’s an average caper that feels familiar and suffers mightily from an excess of chase scenes although, in the interests of full disclosure, I should add I attended the screening with a six-year-old who said afterwards: ‘I loved it.’ Six-year-olds. We are fond of them and all that, but they just don’t ever get the bigger picture, do they?
This is set in Manhattan and concerns Max, a little terrier as voiced by Louis C.K. (The dogs speak, but to the human ear it sounds like barking.) Max lives in an apartment with his human, Katie (Ellie Kemper). Max adores Katie and Katie adores Max. The opening scenes show Max riding in Katie’s bike basket and Max washing Katie’s face with his happy licks and what have you, but presumably this is only at weekends, because otherwise Katie is at work all day and Max is left in the apartment. (The tagline to this film asks: ‘Ever wondered what your pets do all day when you are not at home?’, to which I would say if you’re not at home all day, you shouldn’t have a dog, but no one seems bothered about that here.)
The animation is not groundbreaking, but is bright and colourful with a palette that, most pleasingly, reminded me of certain books from my childhood, especially Go, Dog. Go! (by P.D. Eastman). And the opening scenes gave me cause to believe this would, at least, capture something of the true nature of canines. Max drops everything when a ball comes into play — ‘Ball! Ball! Ball!’ — and always greets Katie on her return as our dog always greets us, even though we adore our dog responsibly, and are Never Out For Long. (We call it ‘The Dance of Extreme Happiness’ and if you’d like to try it at home, it must involve spinning in excited circles while trying to bite your own balls off.) But then Max’s world is disrupted when Katie returns one evening with a big shaggy mutt called Duke (Eric Stonestreet) whom she’s just adopted from a rescue centre. (What shelter would give a dog to someone who works all day and how do we get it closed down?) It is Katie’s fervent hope that Max and Duke will be best of friends, but Max’s nose is put out of joint and then the next day Katie leaves them to it, even though it’s Duke’s first day in this new environment. (I liked Katie a lot less than you are meant to like Katie; it may even be I hated Katie.)
If the narrative already sounds familiar, it’s because it is pretty much Toy Story, where Woody was the favoured toy until Buzz trucked up, but unlike Toy Story, this does not then focus on character, or having something to say about childhood, or even having something to say about anything. Instead, Max and Duke end up on the streets of New York, where they have to avoid the dog-catcher at all costs, as well as Snowball, a psychotic rabbit who leads an underground movement whose goal is to un-domesticate all pets. Along the way, many other animals become involved, possibly too many. There’s a hawk and an old basset hound and a pug and a budgie and a guinea pig and a white fluffy Pomeranian who has the hots for Max, to name but a few. So it’s busy, but more than that, it’s repetitive. It’s: ‘Here comes the dog-catcher! Run, run, run!’ And: ‘Here comes Snowball! Run, run, run!’ And: ‘Here comes the dog-catcher! Again! Run, run, run.’ It’s this, over and over. While we wonder: will Max and Duke finally become buddies? Will they?
When The Secret Life of Pets is about the secret life of pets, and we see the pets revealing their actual dispositions behind their owners’ backs — the poodle that listens to heavy rock when his humans are out the door, for instance — it’s delicious, but such vignettes stop quite early on. Instead, what we have here, in effect, is a generic action movie in which the main players happen to be animals, but could just as well be people. Still, the six-year-old ‘loved it’ which would count for something, if only it did.