Box Office Democracy: The Secret Life of Pets

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how at this point in my life I’m through being cool.

I’m 32 years old, I’m engaged to the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with, and I just closed on a house. I don’t need to do things anymore because I think they make me look cool. I’m going to use clip-on sunglasses, wear flip-flops despite my giant feet looking goofy in them, and I’ll wear shorts after dark if it’s a warm evening and I feel like it. If something I like happens to be cool then that’s a great coincidence, but otherwise I’m willing to wear wrestling shirts and play needlessly complicated board games.

By the same token I’m willing to say that I wholeheartedly enjoyed The Secret Life of Pets despite it being a bit shallow from a narrative perspective, and despite the fact that at this point in Minion-mania Illumination Entertainment might be the least cool movie studio on the planet.

The Secret Life of Pets is a pretty standard hero’s journey story, plucky everydog Max (Louis C.K.) has his idyllic life disrupted by newcomer Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and the two eventually get lost in New York and a ragtag group of other pets come together to save them. It’s not the most original story in the world, but it’s a perfectly strong framework to hang 90 minutes of reliable pet humor. Dogs are earnest and dumb, cats are aloof and egotistical, and birds are surprisingly clever. I suppose a megalomaniacal rabbit and an army of neglected pets bent on the subjugation of human life is a little new, but no one strained under the narrative weight here. What shines is the jokes and more importantly, the execution.

The casting for Secret Life of Pets is impeccable, and while I usually want to resist the trend of hiring mainstream actors to do voice work (is it even a trend at this point? It’s basically a cultural norm) I can’t deny that the performances here are top notch. C.K. and Stonestreet are good enough, the former is doing a generic enough good guy persona and the latter a performance that’s 98% bumbling goofball the supporting cast is where the real gems are. Jenny Slate is a revelation as the lovesick Pomeranian who live across the street from Mac and leads the effort to return him home. She’s spunky and funny but most importantly really genuine. Slate has been bubbling just below the audience consciousness line for a while, and I hope that she can finally start breaking through with efforts like this. Albert Brooks is a legend for good reason, but I never knew I always wanted him to play a hawk with an honesty problem. He steals every scene he’s in and, most importantly, sounds nothing like Marlin from when I saw him a couple weeks back. Kevin Hart has spent the last couple years slowly winning my heart and he deserves all of that love here. It’s his trademark big over-the-top character I’ll probably see four times this year but it consistently got the biggest laughs in the theater.

There’s a moment in the second act where I thought Secret Life of Pets was finally going to try for a big emotional moment, to step above what I expect from Illumination and join the Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks upper echelon in animated storytelling. They start talking about Duke’s original owner and the life they had together and when they return to find said owner, the current occupant of the house (a cat) tells Duke that his owner has passed away. They are clearly trying to pull at the heartstrings with this revelation but the moment gets no time to breathe, feels a little out of nowhere when it comes up, and is never even referenced again. I wanted a bigger moment, I wanted to know what Duke’s original owner called him, I wanted something bigger. If you’re going to go for it commit all the way and if you aren’t going to make a real effort maybe that time would be better served with a couple more good jokes.