I loved the premise of Pixar’s Toy Story movies – that our kids’ toys take on lives of their own and experience their own adventures when left alone, only to return to their sedentary positions upon the return of their masters. I’ve often thought a similar assertion about our pets could make for hilarious motion picture fun. And sure enough, Chris Renaud and Universal Studios have done just that with their new computer-animated The Secret Life of Pets.
The first 20 minutes of this film are as perfect as we might imagine. Our protagonist is a terrier named Max who lives in a Manhattan apartment with his owner, a young single professional named Katie. During the day, Max spends time with the pets of other tenants – a clumsy bulldog, an overweight cat, a well-groomed full-sized poodle who listens to heavy metal when his owner leaves, and a small white fluffy female dog named Gidget who secretly loves Max. These introductory scenes set up what could have been a fable as cute and clever as those of the Toy Story franchise. I guarantee if you’ve ever owned a pet, you’ll see his or her traits in at least one of these adept creations.
Tensions rise when Katie adopts a large, clumsy dog from animal rescue. His name is Duke, and he and Max do not get along – at least when Katie’s not around. Had the writers stopped writing plot developments at this point, and instead concentrated on character development, The Secret Life of Pets could have been a classic. But instead, Max and Duke break away from their lazy hired dogwalker and wander into an adventure involving a cult of abandoned pets who inhabit the sewer system under Manhattan. Led by a crazed rabbit named Snowball, these misfit animals include a tattooed pig, a venomous snake, a crazy lizard, and a hungry crocodile.
Back at the high-rise, Gidget and her buddies set out on a trek to rescue Max. Helping them with their quest are a hawk who desperately wants to eat Gidget, and an old crippled Bassett hound named Pops – who knows every nook and cranny in New York. And this is where the story goes haywire. Up until Max and Duke “escape,” The Secret Life of Pets is a believable story. Granted, we know our pets don’t truly have a secret life any more than do our children’s toys. But the idea put forth in the first reel is a neat set-up; we can imagine our pets carrying on in this fashion.
But when Max and Duke enter the “sewer world,” all bets are off. The story then becomes unbelievable, because such a world does not exist – nor would this collection of castoffs ever live together. Sure we can conceive neighborhood dogs and cats stirring up their own fun when we leave for work and school. But a rabbit, pig, crocodile, lizard, and snake living in the sewer? Preposterous! And that’s where Renaud and fellow director Yarrow Cheney “jump the shark,” as the saying goes.
A team of three writers (Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul, and Ken Daurio) is responsible for this mess, and it shows. The Secret Life of Pets not only contains too much plot (in other words too many twists and turns), but they’ve written such a ridiculous connivance as to free themselves from writing within the confines of the thoughts and actions of actual pets. No one knows how two domesticated dogs would respond when confronted with a crazed rabbit in a city sewer because it’s never happened before. These writers use their outlandish story arc to essentially give themselves license to attribute traits to our pets that don’t exist. This cheats the audience out of what could have been an ingenious film (in the hands of, say, Pixar – just to pick a name).
So I cannot recommend The Secret Life of Pets for its grossly overwritten, overwrought screenplay. But I also cannot recommend it for a couple other reasons. First, while this is computer-animated, The Secret Life of Pets is a violent film, not suitable for the youngest kids. For example, when Snowball the rabbit throws Max the dog into a dumpster (Yeah I know, this could never and would never happen), the sound effect “thud” is harsh enough that younger viewers might envision a dog actually experiencing a hard throw. As with the wild plot developments, the violent nature needs to be toned down.
And the A-list voice talent? Mostly wasted. Louis C.K. voices Max, in what I like to call the Albert Brooks role – the nervous hero, with deep concern for his close friends. Ironically, Albert Brooks does voice a character here – that of the forlorn and mysterious hawk. It’s an interesting change of pace for Brooks, but the role doesn’t make use of his comedic talent. Kevin Hart is embarrassingly bad as Snowball the deranged rabbit. It’s fundamentally the same voice role Eddie Murphy played in Mulan and the Shrek films – although more irascible, less heartfelt, and with zero funny lines. The only voice talent who shines is Dana Carvey as Pops. As you might expect, Carvey has the “old tired dog” persona down pat. In fact, I wouldn’t mind if Renauld and Cheney let Carvey voice all the characters. Heck, he probably could have written a better screenplay too.
I always hate to dump on a so-called “family film,” but The Secret Life of Pets is frankly unacceptable – particularly when you’d be more entertained by seeing Finding Dory a second time instead of watching this one even once.
Andy Ray also serves as a film historian for http://www.thefilmyap.com/