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Dog Gone It

Kevin Hart
Kevin Hart
Universal Pictures
 87 Minutes
Rated: PG
Directed by: Yarrow Cheney, Chris Renaud 
Starring: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart
The Secret Life of Pets

All of the classic Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons are at least 50 years old, but they still hold up remarkably well. Even if people have seen them dozens of times before, watching Bugs bedevil Elmer or Wile E. Coyote fall prey to his own booby trap invariably draws a big laugh from audiences. But for all their remarkable inventiveness, the smartest thing the Warner animators ever did was to keep the length of the cartoons to a manageable seven minutes or so. At that length, the cartoons were funny; drawn out to feature length, as in the poorly received Space Jam, they were not.


The Secret Life of Pets can best be described as a cross between Looney Tunes, most specifically the Tweety and Sylvester cartoons, and Toy Story. At its best, Secret Life captures the zaniness of the Warner Brothers classics and the emotion of Toy Story. Unfortunately, those moments, especially the more emotional ones, are somewhat too few and too far between.


Fittingly, Secret Life is set in New York City, where far too few people have yards or other places for pets to roam free. Instead, the animals spend their days in cramped apartments waiting for their owners to return home. Secret Life spends its first (and best) ten minutes showing the audience the antics the pets get into (much of this already showed up in the film’s trailers), and then gradually introduces its non-human cast. Primary among them is Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), a terrier who manages to find ways of socializing with many of the other neighborhood pets. These include Chloe (Lake Bell), a fat cat, Buddy (Hannibal Burress), an easy-going dachshund, and Mel (Bobby Moynihan) a somewhat obtuse bulldog. Max’s great life with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) comes to a screeching halt when she brings home a very large mutt named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), who battles Max for dominance of the household.


Unfortunately for both Max and Duke, their squabbles land them in big trouble when they lose their collars and wind up in the Animal Control van. The van never makes it to the pound, however, because a group of former house pets crashes it and winds up rescuing Max and Duke. These Flushed Pets, as they call themselves, were abandoned and mistreated by their owners and now have their own society in the sewers, led by a manic bunny rabbit deceptively named Snowball (Kevin Hart). At first, they take Max and Duke in, but when they discover that the pair have not been abandoned, Snowball and his followers chase after them.


In the meantime, Max’s friends, led by Gidget (Jenny Slate), a Pomeranian with a crush on him, are also trying to find the missing dogs, only with a far more benign motive. Gidget befriends Tiberius (Albert Brooks), a lonely hawk who checks his instincts to eat some of the smaller pets and an elderly hound in a canine rear-legs wheelchair appropriately named Pops (Dana Carvey). Pops’ knowledge of the streets and alleys of the city helps them maneuver around the city with relative ease, while Tiberius is able to maintain a lookout from above.


It’s easiest to look at The Secret Life of Pets as three separate movies of distinctly unequal lengths. The first segment, about what pets do all day, is often hilarious (although spoiled somewhat by trailers). At the end is another great segment in which the audience gets to see, for the first time, the various pets with their owners and the special bond that exists between them (the construction worker and the canary bit is almost worth the price of admission by itself). That sequence, along with the shots of Katie and Max early in the film, captures the real essence of that bond with an emotional tug that will appeal to anyone who has ever owned a pet.


Then, there’s the rest. The anthropomorphic nature of the plot, with the combination of surprisingly human behavior mixed in with typical animal instincts (like dogs sniffing each others’ rear ends) is occasionally clever, but it fails to come close to the depth of Zootopia earlier this year. The best concept is that of the cultlike community of Flushed Pets, and, while the idea of a very cute bunny being their leader is inspired, the casting of Kevin Hart gives that entire storyline a manic over-the-top energy that doesn’t quite work.


There are a few good sequences in the movie. At one point, Max and Duke get loose in a sausage factory and imagine a musical sequence in which they sing and dance with a chorus of hot dogs to the tune of “We Go Together.” Plus, watching Gidget and friends, especially Pops, maneuver their way through and around the streets of New York provides some good sight gags.


For the most part, however, Secret Life contains a lot of repetitive, meandering chases and slapstick animal antics. Much of this was designed to produce some good 3D effects, but, as usual in kids aimed at kids, it grows old fast, especially when there aren’t enough witticisms aimed at adults to break up the monotony for those over the age of ten in the audience. Not surprisingly, the style of Secret Life is quite similar to that of the escapades of the Minions, since both were produced by Illumination Entertainment. But, while the producers of Despicable Me were careful to break up the Minion antics into tolerable chunks, here, directors Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud occasionally let things go on too long.


The Secret Life of Pets is an example of a concept that would have produced a hilarious introductory cartoon to a Despicable Me movie but which proves somewhat less hilarious when stretched to 90 minutes. However, the movie is never less than good naturedly amiable, and the filmmakers manage to find enough sequences that are either funny enough or emotional enough to get audiences through the roughest patches. I’m a big believer that a movie’s ending is the biggest factor in shaping a viewer’s overall impression of the film. Secret Life saves its best moments (and moments completely unspoiled in the trailers) for last. The Secret Life of Pets becomes somewhat like its large co-star Duke, a bit of a frustrating shaggy dog at times but one you can’t help but love.

In this scene, Louis C.K. and Eric Stonestreet try to persuade Kevin Hart to rescue them from Animal Control. 

Read other reviews of The Secret Life of Pets:


The Secret Life of Pets (2016) on IMDb