The Secret Life of Pets is a movie of modest tedium interrupted with moments of gut-busting hilarity. It is yet another kids movie, in which the hero worries and frets about the horror and dangers that might happen to their child. You know, like kids do.
All condescension aside Chris Renaud’s sequel to the first The Secret Life of Pets is a harmless follow-up. The movie works best when Renaud and the script, by Brian Lynch, ignore the so-called plot and just go looney tunes. Renaud and Lynch have a twisted sense of humor earmarked with the specificity of personal experience.
Midway into the film, we meet a broken down old basset hound named Pops, voiced by Dana Carvey. His haunches strapped into a trolley cart because his back legs are paralyzed. Pops is teaching a horde of puppies the secret to pooping and where to poop.
Shoes and closet corners are the best places according to Pops. “It messes with the human mind.” As a man who has owned several dogs and a cat, I do not find it hard to believe puppies learn these things from their elders. One puppy, Pickles, brags to Pops that he “Pooped in a boot. He won’t be able to find for it weeks.”
The relationship between Pops and Pickles is more interesting and entertaining than the one shared by Max and Rooster. Patton Oswalt voices Max, a Jack Russell terrier while Harrison Ford voices Rooster a Welsh sheepdog. Pickles and Pops talk about pooping while Max and Rooster talk about what it means to be a man.
The Secret Life of Pets is at its best when it sticks to the pooping.
Max’s owners, went and had themselves a kid, Liam. As Liam comes of age to go to preschool Max finds himself worrying about the dangers and harm that could come to him. More and more I’m beginning to suspect that grown-ups don’t make kids movies for kids but for the therapy they can not afford.
Ironically Max’s owner takes him to a veterinarian who specializes in behavioral disorders. All of this takes up the first twenty minutes. That may not seem like much to you but understand the movie is only about an hour and twenty minutes. For a movie which is for all intents and purposes, a brilliant absurd comedy, it spends an absurd amount of time just to explain why Max wears a plastic cone around his neck.
Thankfully, Renaud and Lynch get sidetracked. Max and his humans are going on a trip to the country. Before leaving he drops off his favorite squeak toy, Baby Bee, with the love-struck pomeranian next door, Gidget, voiced by Jenny Slate. Long story short the toy falls into an apartment belonging to an old lady and her literal horde of cats.
On another floor, we have Snowball, a hyperactive bunny rabbit voiced by Kevin Hart. Snowball has delusions of being a superhero. Thankfully a Shih Tzu, Daisy, voiced by Tiffany Haddish needs his help to rescue a poor baby tiger being held by the evil circus owner.
Lynch’s script, for all that it has going on, has great swaths of brazen boredom. The Max storyline takes up a lot of oxygen. Rooster, a gruff and roguish solitary type tells Max he needs to stop being afraid. “The first step of not being afraid is acting like you’re not afraid.”
I take back my earlier statement about filmmakers making children’s movies as an act of therapy. It seems they might also be trying to peddle a soon to be published self-help book. At best it is a misguided attempt to have Max understand that he can’t let fear rule his life. But at worst it tells kids that anxieties and phobias can be overcome if you just stop whining and pretend like everything is okay.
The saving grace of it all is while the movie goes through all the trouble to say the message it doesn’t seem particularly all that hog wild about it. The moment is soon lost to a sublime moment of a Mr. Bean-esque comedy as Max is forced to try and save a baby lamb named Cotton.
Cotton is the type of character who blithely goes through life happily unaware that death lies waiting for him at every turn. Max and Rooster go looking for Cotton only to find him in a tree. Rooster asks him what he’s doing, and Cotton merely laughs. “This tree has apples.” It’s then the camera pulls back to reveal the tree isn’t a tree so much as branches growing from a cliff.
Moments like these are the saving grace of Secret Life of Pets. The Max and Rooster storyline, despite the talents of Oswalt and Ford, go nowhere and drag the movie down. Slate’s adventures, as well as Haddish and Hart’s rescue attempt, on the other hand, are almost breathtaking. Impressively, Lynch somehow manages to tie it all together in the end for a Paddington 2 style train chase.
The animation, like all animation since the dawn of Pixar, is gorgeous and nice to look at. Illumination is a studio that has raised “passable” to an art form. From time to time their movies will wrestle with weighty themes, such as Smallfoot. The art style typically looks good but lacks the finesse and attention to detail that Pixar as. Though as Pixar loses itself more and more into the photorealism aspects of animation, Illumination movies are beginning to develop a quirky style.
Arguably their movies look the same in terms of their affinity for ovals and straight lines. But the mere fact that the animation never tries to replicate the world we know allows it to keep pace with Pixar. Granted Illumination isn’t designing reality or really world-building in any sense. I’ve had to resign myself to the unsettling fact that not every animated movie can be Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
What they have done is to showcase the weakness of simply having celebrities voice these characters. Voice actors can make small roles pop by little affectations. Roles such as Cotton, for instance. Or Pickles.
Harrison Ford is a movie star and a terrific actor. But his Rooster could have been voiced by anybody. As it is Rooster isn’t a character. He’s a Welsh sheepdog voiced by Harrison Ford. These aren’t characters so much as famous people yelling for a paycheck.
I saw the movie by myself in an empty theater. It begs the question if a critic almost dies laughing at a gag involving: a pomeranian going undercover as a cat, a gerbil with a laser pointer, a kitten swarm, and a Roomba, is the movie worth seeing? If you can figure out the gag just by reading that sentence then I would say, no. However, if you can’t help but be intrigued by all means enjoy yourself. Tell Pickles I said “Hi”.