The Secret Life of Pets is a very enjoyable joke machine, but a deeply confused one that illuminates Illumination’s continued weaknesses.
I’ve been trying to reconcile the genuine enjoyment I had watching The Secret Life of Pets and the guilt I have had in doing so for a good month now. I don’t normally believe in the concept of “guilty pleasures,” partially because the kinds of films that get trotted out upon mentions of that phrase are either cheesy testosterone-fuelled B-movies that succeed at their entertaining aims, or are female-focussed “chick flicks” or campy spectacles that aren’t aimed at straight men and therefore arbitrarily fall under the “I’m not supposed to like this but…” qualifier due to our discourse still being dominated by cis male voices. Mainly, though, I’m a proponent of just admitting you like a thing and not feeling guilty over that fact, maybe acknowledge certain more problematic aspects as such but otherwise just enjoy the stuff you enjoy. I mean, how else am I supposed to watch 24 otherwise?
But yet I cannot help feeling guilty over my enjoyment of The Secret Life of Pets, and that guilt stems from feeling like a father who knows his child is capable of doing better at school than the mediocre grades he aims for and currently achieves if only he’d try pushing himself harder. I’ve written before about Illumination Entertainment’s identity-crisis – or, more accurately, their lack of a true identity despite having made 4 feature films over half-a-decade at time of writing – and The Secret Life of Pets has only exacerbated this whole issue towards something approaching a true breaking point. It’s not so much that the film is aiming primarily to be nothing more than a disposable joke machine – which, although I have always argued and still believe is not inherently a bad thing for animated features to aim for, is a whole other problem that we shall come back to later – it’s that even with that modest aim, everybody at Illumination still seems to have no real idea as to what kind of film they’re trying to make.
To wit, our set-up follows Max (Louis C.K.), a Jack Russell Terrier who lives a wonderful privileged life in an apartment in New York City with his loving owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). His perfect relationship with Katie risks coming to a screeching halt, however, when Katie one day brings home after work Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a Newfoundland. Max is fearful that Duke is going to try and take Katie away from him, not helped by Duke’s desperation to stay at his new home leading to him being outwardly antagonistic towards Max, and plots to get him thrown out. This backfires when, out on a walk, circumstances leave the pair lost in the City without their collars and they instead have to work together to find their way back home.
It’s a set-up as old as the history of feature-length CG animation, almost literally since it’s basically the plot of the 21 year-old Toy Story. This, unsurprisingly, has been widely-mocked by the animation community at large ever since that synopsis was first revealed. But, surprisingly, it also seems to be a disdain that’s shared by those at Illumination itself, for the film basically drops that antagonistic Woody/Buzz dynamic by about the 30 minute mark. I’m not kidding. Whereas in Toy Story, you have Woody and Buzz sniping at each other constantly and frequently working to undermine the other’s attempt to get home safely before eventually learning to like and respect one another, Max and Duke drop their quarrelling and sniping completely by the film’s halfway point and then become best buds 10 minutes after that.
Even before then, though, the film is completely disinterested in that dynamic. Even with Max and Duke being dogs and that kind of feeling-out process being understandable and ripe for conflict, the film seems to regard it all as purely necessary steps to get to everything else it wants to do; like Illumination either needed an excuse to get Max and Duke into the city and couldn’t be bothered to think up some better method to do so, or some producer from on-high came down with the “Toy Story but with pets” pitch and everybody else at the studio was instead trying to fight their way out of that limiting straitjacket. Consequently, the film’s occasional attempts to force specific emotional resonance, like with Duke’s backstory (which is basically the first 9 minutes of Up but with a dog), are either half-heartedly handled or spectacularly bungled. Sometimes both!
Instead, The Secret Life of Pets wants to be a high-end, top-of-the-line, sleekly-designed joke machine. Which is fine – sort of, again, we’ll get back to that later – except that the film can’t seem to decide what kind of joke machine it wants to be. Early stretches of the film lean more towards observational humour where the animation – and, for the record, it is some gorgeous animation with excellent interplaying of colours, adorable character designs and a strong visual style, and some clever life-infusing character animations and expressions making this a surprisingly lovely film to look at – is used to create the joke without going too absurd. This is probably best exemplified, with the exception of the opening montage that has been trailed in full for a year now, by a short sequence where Max tries to scare off a pigeon to prove his protector-status to Katie only to be scared himself when it flaps its wings. It’s something a lot of dog owners will already understand, but the medium of animation gives the joke a genuine physical hit through Max’s facial expressions and movements. It’s simple, rooted in reality, and a kind of comedy most animated features don’t go for.
Hell, the film’s arguably at its best when it remains focussed on that lower-key animation-focussed humour. Chloe, a fat selfish tabby cat, does have funny lines and a wonderfully apathetic vocal turn from Lake Bell, but she’s never funnier than when the film is just leaving her to pull off various facial expressions and animations, especially whenever her mind absently wanders and gets distracted by a dangling window blind lead or a cardboard tube. These are jokes that any pet owner has heard before or has experienced first-hand multiple times, but the excellent animation from Illumination and that purposeful aiming for a more modest, observational punchline in stark contrast to wacky hijinks provides a fix that I haven’t seen from many other animated features in recent times.
It’s also a well that the film doesn’t stick with outside of the beginning and the very end. That rooting of our characters and humour in something close to our reality is soon dropped in favour of something far more cartoony yet equally thought-through. This primarily comes from Max and Duke running into, and then running afoul of, The Flushed Pets, a revolutionary group of abandoned pets now bent on the overthrow of mankind, led by the rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart). They have set up an elaborate secret society in the sewers underneath New York City, their ranks filled with alligators and tattooed pigs, and hold initiation ceremonies involving giant vipers. Snowball even takes multiple opportunities to eulogise a former fallen brethren, a goose named Ricky, which started inexplicably funny and somehow kept getting inexplicably funnier the more times it was trotted out. This is out there for a film that, just 10 minutes earlier, placed observational comedy as its stock in trade.
And that kind of out there nature starts to consume the film whole, even though Snowball and the Flushed Pets are barely in the film at all, with the film outright giving up on the idea of them being antagonists by the climax. A detour to a sausage factory for Max and Duke leads to the kind of G-rated drug-trip that Classic-era Disney used to be all about, Gidget (an amazing Jenny Slate), an adorable Pomeranian, makes friends with a pathetic self-loathing hawk named Tiberius (Albert Brooks) in a side-plot we’ll come back to later, an army of evil alley cats kick off the first of the film’s smorgasbord of over-the-top cartoony chase sequences, and the film’s finale seemingly abandons all pretence of observational comedy or some kind of grounding in reality for a mass brawl on the Brooklyn Bridge… only to then simmer things right back down again for a surprisingly touching (for me at any rate) final montage of the pets greeting their owners as they arrive home after a long day.
It’s less that film takes this route – the idea of starting small, grounded in reality, and then expanding into something outlandish and crazy by the end, to fulfil the “Secret Life” part of the title – and more that the film wants to have its cake and eat it too. Or that it was never interested in its cake in the first place but was ordered to eat it anyway, it’s really unclear. As previously mentioned, Pets wants to be a precision-calibrated hi-octane joke machine, but the initial Toy Story dynamic hobbles the film’s desire to fully embrace that goal, as the film stops dead nearly two-thirds of the way through in order to try and force in an emotional connection that it in no way earns and spectacularly bungles to such an extent that I’m still now, a month on from first viewing, unsure of whether directors Chris Renaud & Yarrow Cheney and their team of writers were forced to include the sequences by some higher-ups and purposefully undercut any potential power out of spite for conflicting with their vision.
What’s more, despite the central emotional connection and dynamic ostensibly being Max and Duke, the pair are actually off-screen for a good half of the film’s runtime. Instead, the film is split between their attempts to get home and Gidget leading a rescue team into the City to find them. In simple terms, there’s a reason why Toy Story stuck with Woody and Buzz for almost 80% of the time after they both get separated from Andy’s group rather than cutting back and forth between the two. So Max and Duke’s relationship, which again is basically resolved of all conflict by the half-hour mark, is further undercut by the film not giving them enough screen-time to properly bond or interact, especially since a 3 minute stretch of film without a chase or setpiece of some kind is considered an unconscionable offence by Pets’ creative team that needs immediate rectification. This is all basic storytelling technique and elements, and yet at every single turn Pets shows a startling inadequacy and disinterest in pulling them off.
And yet, despite that damning lack of focus and coherence and either an intentional sabotage or just plain bungling of any genuine emotional depth… I really liked The Secret Life of Pets and would be willing to recommend it. I had fun and laughed a hell of a lot as, despite it being totally unsure as to what type of joke machine it wants to be, pretty much all of its jokes are incredibly funny and well-honed, helped by the animation being gorgeous to look at in this rather low-key way – bowling you over with perfectly-chosen character animations and facial expressions, a bright and pleasing colour palette, and a deceptively simple art style rather than raw technical prowess.
But I feel like recommending The Secret Life of Pets is actually the worst thing I could do, as doing so feels like a tacit condoning for Illumination to just keep doing what they’re currently doing, which isn’t a whole lot. Pets starts out with a unique identity of its own – the small-scale observational comedy part, not the blatant-Toy Story rip part – and then very quickly sacrifices it in favour of being yet another loud whizz-bang animated cartoon for the kids. As funny as Pets is, once it gets going there really isn’t a whole lot it’s doing different from the rest of the B-tier American animation field, right down to the occasionally off-kilter pop soundtrack. As with every single one of Illumination’s prior films, the occasional feints towards a different and unique identity – I’ve managed to somehow go through this entire review without mentioning Alexandre Desplat’s oft-brilliant score which, in its best moments, utilises an old-school big-band/swing style that replicates the feel of Golden Age Animation sublimely – end up being just that, feints, before eventually going back to being just another animated feature in an overcrowded sea.
I find this maddening. I know that Illumination have a genuinely Great film in them, a film that helps make them identifiable in ways that aren’t simply “we created the Minions!” Yet they seem perfectly content to aim for B or B-minus level fare exclusively. This is not inherently a bad thing when it’s done sparingly, but when it’s all your studio is ever aiming for, without trying to carve out a unique identity and making basic storytelling fumbles despite those modest aims, it starts to feel like you’re just being lazy and unimaginative. There’s a difference between the Aardman’s of the world (who almost never shoot for the moon but reach it anyway thanks to having a unique identity and strong storytelling skills) and the Blue Sky’s of the world (who err don’t), and Illumination are currently too much like the latter for my liking.
That’s why I feel guilty liking and recommending The Secret Life of Pets, cos it can come off as an indicator to the studio that they don’t need to try harder, that they don’t need to forge a real identity, to aim higher, cos why do that when you’re the third-biggest name in Animation today and people are enjoying your work? I feel like a parent, in all honesty. The B-minus they’ve been averaging for the last few works is good, but I know for a fact that they could do better if they applied themselves more, and time is drastically running out for them to make that change. I just fear that Chris Meledandri – the studio’s head and the former head of Blue Sky Studios – really doesn’t care enough to let that happen.