Anyone who’s ever owned a pet will have thought at one time or another that their beloved cat, dog, hamster or lizard, like the playthings in Toy Story, has another life beyond the one we are privileged to witness.
Once we walk out the door, we muse, Fifi the poodle or Marx the Manx, sets up a speakeasy for neighbourhood pets in the laundry or hosts a litter appreciation society out on the lawn.
Any speculation we might have on the matter is confirmed in full in Illumination Entertainment’s adorably funny The Secret Life of Pets, directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney, which shines a light on our beloved pets’ extracurricular activities.
The titular pets in question are the residents of a funky red old apartment block in a supersized New York, whose already tall gleaming spires of commerce and resident are exaggerated all the more to help us see the urban landscape from an animal’s perspective, and chief among them is Max (Louis C. K.), a perky Jack Russell terrier who is convinced beyond a shadow of doubt that his owner’s world begins and end with him.
Like his friends Chloe (Lake Bell), an over-indulged grey tabby cat, a hyperactive pug named Mel (Bobby Moynihan), a chilled Daschund, Buddy (Hannibal Buress) and Sweetpea (Tara Strong), a yellow-green budgerigar with quirky delusions of grandeur, Max can’t convince there is anything in the outside world that could be as good as spending time with him.
It not some nasty narcissistic streak at work; Max is so in love with his beloved owner and BFF Katie (Ellie Kemper) and so enraptured with every moment that he spends with her, that he assumes, with touching childlike certainty that Katie must feel exactly the same.
She does, of course, but like all humans, she has bills to pay, places to go and people to see and so she, like all the owners is forced to leave Max behind while she deals with the travails of the rat race, which alas, not actually include any pet rats (save for the feral ones in the sewers but that’s a whole other story).
Each day is much the same in Max’s small but happy world.
Katie walks out of the apartment, he sits at the door pining for her, unaware of that Gidget, the pampered white Pomeranian in the apartment across the street, is hopelessly, schoolgirl-crushingly in love with him (when she’s not going all-ninja on anyone standing in her way), until all his friends turn up and they spend the day talking and shooting the breeze until joy oh joy, their owners come home.
All of which would make for a less than dynamic narrative, let’s be honest, except that The Secret Life of Pets posits about what might happen if Katie was to, oh say, bring home another rescue dog from the pet, lumbering, goofy and self-protectively aggressive at first, Duke, a brown mongrel whose been rejected once and won’t be again, an intrusion onto Max’s world which sets off an hilarious and further world-upending chain of events that gives Max, Gidget, his friends and a few interlopers such as Tiberius the Red-tailed Hawk a day quite like no other.
And certainly nothing like what Katie would imagine for him and Duke who end up on a wild adventure on the streets of New York, meeting feral cats who make Top Cat and his posse look like jocular wannabes – and who, provide, along with an idiosyncratically dreamlike dancing sausage sequence later on, one of the best visually-rich scenes in the film – encountering Snowball the crazed white bunny (Kevin Hart) and his brutish gang of sewer-dwelling underground pets known as The Flushed Pets, and via a trip to Brooklyn, discovering that maybe they’re meant to be together.
In one sense The Secret Life of Pets is the most daring or adventurous of animated films, lacking the kind of deep emotional substance or complex existential ideas that seamlessly underpin much of Pixar’s material.
But honestly I don’t think that’s the point of this off-the-wall silly, oneliner-studded film which is just as happy to have dogs being blown comically sideways by broken water hydrants or have a poodle owned by a sophisticated classical music lover switch to metal when he leaves for work as it is to have a meaningful moment between Max and Duke when they both come to realise that being loved and having a home with Katie matters equally to both of them.
The jokes and the visual gags fly thick and fast and pretty much all of them land, but what really drives The Secret Life of Pets and makes it such a joy to watch is the bond that forms between Max and Duke.
Sure it’s battling for time with the multitude of crazy moments and silly offbeat asides, but it’s there and it lends the film a sweet, heartwarming vibe that makes it damn near impossible not to like, and like a lot.
The only real flaw in the film, and it’s a minor one, is Illumination near garish fixation with plugging its other properties such as Minions or its upcoming movie Sing.
While “Happy” the soundtrack hit from Despicable Me 2 is amusing when it comes blasting out of a taxi, the joke wears thin when you have Sing posters on a bus and Mel arriving at a raucous pet rave – apparently such things exist and they look like a lot of fun – in a Minions costume.
It’s the kind of thing you’d never see Pixar doing but then it hardly sinks the good ship The Secret Life of Pets which moves at a delightfully quirky brisk pace that you end up letting any obvious product placement jarring go by the time the next pithy oneliner of visual gag rolls around.
It’s doubtful that The Secret Life of Pets will ever ascend to the pantheon of animated feature film greats, but it is nonetheless, astonishingly sweet, a clever, zeitgeist-savvy commentary on the need all of us have, not just pets, to have someone and somewhere special to call home.
It accomplishes the delivery of this message with enough nuance to be satisfying, and does it with such verve, side-splittingly funny jokes and hilarious observations of pet behaviours – watch the cats do their thing when Snowball poops from too much polemic excitement – and delicious meta YouTube commentary (Chloe ends up as the cat video of the day to her horror and our amusement) that any lack of enduring substance is more than made up for by its heartwarming, hugs your pets close feel and the pleasing sense that you’ve been given some insight, however imaginatively conjectured, into what life is like for your pets when you’re gone for the day.