REVIEW: The Secret Life of Pets

11 07 2016

Universal Pictures’ Illumination Entertainment has been collecting plenty of money in the 2010s thanks to films like the “Despicable Me” series, but what is their identity? Prior to “The Secret Life of Pets,” the answer was unclear. Now, they might have found their answer.

Each prominent animation division has its strengths – Pixar’s is packaging adult themes into child-friendly tales; Disney Animation’s, charming with old-school fairy tale morality; DreamWorks’, creating parallel humor tracks for children and parents. Illumination feels well-positioned to capture a middle ground between all three, should they follow in the example of “The Secret Life of Pets.” And they definitely should.

The film feels like their “Toy Story” in many ways, and not just because the premise, story and characters feel so obviously indebted to Pixar’s debut feature. What that 1995 film did for toys in the chest, Illumination does for pets in the crate. Coming over twenty years later, their work might not feel nearly as ingenious, but it is still quite imaginative nonetheless.

Much like Woody was threatened by Andy bringing home Buzz, comfortable house dog Max (voice of Louis C.K.) feels endangered when his big-hearted owner rescues the lumbering stray Duke (voice of Eric Stonestreet) from the pound. Rather than finding a way to coexist, the two wind up lost and endangered. Only for these conflict-riddled canines, the environment they must navigate is not a nondescript suburban neighborhood. It’s the sprawling metropolis of New York City.

The Secret Life of Pets

Along Max and Duke’s incredible journey home, the film touches upon the effects of gentrification in Brooklyn – probably not to the level of discourse requested by Spike Lee, but in far greater detail than is necessary for a children’s movie. (It’s far more overt than, say, those viewers who saw “Frozen” as some kind of coded allegory for lesbianism.) And while “The Secret Life of Pets” celebrates the undying love between animals and humans, it also stares in the face of an unsavory reality: on many occasions, people can be downright cruel to these creatures.

As such, the main antagonist faced by the dogs are the “Flushed Pets,” a wide array of mistreated animals led by the fluffy, fiery rabbit Snowball (voiced by Kevin Hart in a stroke of ingenious casting). They seek the overthrow of the human race and see Max and Duke, two “domestics,” as pawns in their continuing domination. After escaping their custody, Snowball leads the efforts to track them down … with Max’s neighbors, led by the fiercely loyal Pomeranian pup Gidget (voice of Jenny Slate), not far behind. Remarkably, “The Secret Life of Pets” balances their three competing storylines more deftly than the summer’s “Finding Dory” handled two.

Their adventures are littered with clever visual gags, callbacks to films from “Some Like It Hot” to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and plenty of heart without some of the unsparing heaviness that accompanies some of Pixar’s greatest films. While “The Secret Life of Pets” might not lobby for lofty ideals or reinvent the animation wheel, its envisioning of a metropolis as one big apartment building filled with loving humans and an animal perfectly chosen to receive their affection is worth celebrating all the same. A-3halfstars

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