I start this review by first acknowledging there's nothing wrong with
this film from a family-oriented entertainment point of view. It's
colorful, it's fun at times, provides a positive message about
acceptance and provides a clever enough high concept to keep the kids
on their keesters for 80 minutes. As a rudimentary children's film, you
certainly can do worse.
The problem with The Secret Lives of Pets stems from its complete
inability to marry story, character and concept into a discernible
package. As it stands, the film is rushed, bulky and is chalked full of
nonsensical choices that cripples any verdant ideas that could have
been. It's a first draft; not a final product.
The story begins with a happy Jack Russell Terrier named Max (C.K.) who
lives with his owner Katie (Kemper) in a surprisingly roomy Manhattan
apartment. Things change drastically and suddenly with the arrival of
Duke (Stonestreet) a large, shaggy Newfoundland whose introduced as a
"new brother" to Max's chagrin. They, of course don't get along and
after a series of confrontations find themselves lost. The first to
notice they're missing is a lovestruck Pomeranian named Gidget (Slate)
who recruits the rest of Max's friends among others to recover them
from the vast streets of New York City.
The rest of Max's friends are barely worth mentioning as they're mostly
utilized to push the buttons and pull the levers on some uninspired
comedic set-pieces. They're not really useful to the plot, nor do they
succeed in being the Toy Story (1995)-inspired resilient and diverse
gaggle the movie hopes they are. Part of the reason for this is none of
the side characters actually solve any problems. They jet here, they
jet there but when faced with any obstacles they just seem to rush it.
Gone is the creativity of having Mr. Potato Head fashion a new body out
of a tortilla; now we have elderly Basset Hound, Pops (Carvey) hobbling
through construction sites with stalwart confidence.
Frankly focusing on the story's tagged-on villains might have paid more
dividends. The broad machinations of Snowball (Hart), a bunny with
delusions of grandeur are easily the best part of the film, even if
they remain painfully underdeveloped. Additionally his "Flushed Pets"
group could have complicated Duke's allegiance to his new owner or more
easily pegged Max as a fully socialized pet and therefore in need of
re-education. Snowball was the best chance the movie had in getting
audiences to truly know the characters we're supposed to be rooting for
but instead they blew it on prolonged chase sequences and a sausage
factory bit that goes absolutely nowhere.
And that gets me to the biggest problem I have with this film; the
creators' approach to the high concept itself. The film tries to have
its cake and eat it to, portraying characters with innately human
characteristics but still clinging to the charming pet-like
idiosyncrasies we know and love about our furry friends. For example,
Gidget recruits the help of Tiberius (Brooks) a hawk who at first tries
to eat her. She barely escapes his talons only to trust him once more
because that's just what a peppy little dog would do. Max's friends Mel
(Moynihan) and Buddy (Buress) don't even notice Max is gone because,
being dogs, they're distracted by butterflies and squirrels. They're
certainly not a rag-tag group of lovable rogues, they're a confederacy
of dunces, successful only because of the ever changing allegiances of
the main antagonist. Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention Snowball at
one point joins forces with Max to save Duke in a climactic sequence so
blithely unnatural it renders the friends search and rescue completely
This film is a rushed, characterless, flavorless kids film that just
barely stretches its plot over the skeleton of its story structure. As
I said before, if all you're looking for is a bland and forgettable
family film, you could do worse. Yet provided it's appealing concept,
you'd really think the animation studio that made Despicable Me (2010)
could do better.