THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS"
The Secret Life of Pets is Toy Story with animals. Literally. It's the exact same story, but with differing breeds of dogs substituting for a cowboy doll and a spaceman action figure. That can be a little disconcerting at times, but like Pixar's first full-length feature, Pets is a lot of fun, which makes it easy to forgive the fact that it rather shamelessly co-opts a classic.
Louis CK provides the voice of Max, a little dog living in NYC with his beloved owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). One day, Katie brings home a new pooch, a large and hairy stray named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Seeing him as competition for Katie's affection, Max conspires to get rid of the intruder. In the process, both dogs get loose in the city. They encounter an evil bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart), who oversees a vicious gang of abandoned pets and harbors a grudge against all "domestics." Meanwhile, the little lapdog Gidget (Jenny Slate), who's in love with Max, launches a mission to find him once she realizes he's not home. Helping out are some other pooches, Mel (Bobby Moynihan) and Buddy (Hannibal Buress), a cat named Chloe (Lake Bell), and a predatory bird, Tiberius (Albert Brooks).
Early ads emphasized the idea that The Secret Life of Pets would be a comic fantasy about what our animal friends do when we're not home. That's here, although it's a fairly small part of the story, figuring in only at the beginning and the end. Mostly, the plot centers around the adventures Max and Duke have, which take them through the city's sewers and back alleys, onto a construction site, and even into the middle of the Hudson River. They have to learn to rely on each other if they ever want to find their way back home or escape the ever-looming animal control officers.
A movie like this has to be smart about its subject matter to work. Pets is indeed smart. (No, that was not intended to be a PetSmart pun, even though they're an official promotional partner of the film. Give a guy some credit.) Directors Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud and the entire creative team have obviously studied their own pets quite closely. Many of the jokes are based on real animal behavior. Gags revolve around cats being aloof, dogs being hyper and excitable, and so on. As a further example, one scene involving a party features a group of dogs sniffing each other's butts as they exchange pleasant greetings. (Some bits are admittedly of the “potty humor” variety, but only because they strive to capture truth.) If you've ever owned a pet, you'll appreciate that sort of observational comedy. The Secret Life of Pets generates a great deal of That is so true! recognition laughter.
The other key strength of the film is that the characters are lovable. They all have very distinct, appealing personalities. This gives the stellar voice cast an opportunity to run with the material. Everyone is great, but the three standouts are Louis CK, Kevin Hart, and Dana Carvey. The first brings his particular neurotic delivery to Max, turning the dog into...well, a less profane canine Louis CK. (That's a good thing.) Hart, meanwhile, has fun capitalizing on the fact that his cute fluffy-bunny character is the villain. He provides Snowball with a hilariously overwrought sense of rage. Carvey plays Pops, an aging pooch in one of those dog wheelchairs. Despite his age and frailty, Pops's hysterically cranky disposition helps Gidget and the rescue party immensely.
The Secret Life of Pets is the kind of movie that will make a lot of people happy. It sticks to a subject many of us are very familiar with, then uses that subject to create jokes that will ring a bell with any pet owner. Kids will love the silly hijinks and the sweet message about friendship, while adults can appreciate the quality of the voicework and the under-the-radar sophisticated jokes that have been slipped in.
Yes, it rips off Toy Story, but if you're going to rip something off, rip off the best. And be as charming and mirthful as The Secret Life of Pets.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Secret Life of Pets is rated PG for action and some rude humor. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.
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