Review: ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ (a dog-driven buddy bonding flick)

Zany, manic, and heartwarming.

Max (Louis C.K.) believes he’s the luckiest dog in New York City, as happy as any dog could be with his owner…until she brings home another dog, Duke (Eric Stonestreet), an enormous rescue pet who immediately encroaches on Max’s status as top dog. As both try to out-alpha the other for dominance, an opportunity at a dog walk park sets both animals on a collision course with back alley strays, the city animal control, and an human-hating underground led by an angry white bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart). When neighboring dog Gidget (Jenny Slate) discovers Max is missing, she mobilizes her own rescue efforts, but can Max and Duke reconcile their differences to evade capture and get home before their owner returns?

From the filmmakers who brought you Despicable Me and Minions comes a story of pets who are far more sophisticated than they let on to their owners. In a clear separation from the way Disney or another studio might handle a story like this, no punches are pulled concerning the anatomy of these characters; they eat, they pee, and they poop…even on camera. They can get as dirty and gross (within reason) as any actual pet, and the effect ups the realism factor in spite of the fact all the animals are talking to one another in plain English. The movie’s real secret, however, is the expert balancing of humorous, outrageous, and serious moments that entertain throughout the film. Coming in on the heels of box office juggernaut Finding Dory, this was no easy task, but a grand marketing campaign hasn’t hurt the film’s chances, either.

The voice cast boasts an impressive pedigree (pun intended). A rather subdued Louis C.K. provides Max an easy-going attitude until his new rival asserts himself. Kevin Hart channels his best Chris Rock impression as an abandoned little bunny with big dreams of dethroning the dominate species on the planet. Listen closely and you’ll recognize Albert Brooks lending his voice to sinister bird of prey Tiberius, a far cry from Pixar’s slightly neurotic but mostly harmless Marlin. Jenny Slate’s voice work as the pampered Gidget turned rescue organizer and sometimes interrogator surprises throughout the film. While Leonard has no lines, it’s hard not to respect his taste in music.

The Secret Life of Pets borrows heavily from the buddy movie concepts, inviting comparisons to Pixar’s original Toy Story and similar films. There is also a bit of a disturbing fantasy sequence involving food that would make Seth Rogan proud, but overall, Pets sets up and exploits its own original elements, even if some parts are predictable. While younger kids might need a few explanations, the movie is generally family friendly and a good time for all. Can a sequel be far off? Of course, it isn’t.

(a three and half skull recommendation out of four)

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