Theorists have given the attribution of human traits to non-human entities a rather complicated name – ‘anthropomorphism’. It twists your tongue, but the word explains well the enterprise of most animated films. From Lion King and 101 Dalmatians to Finding Nemo and Ice Age, animation has made us believe, if only for an hour two, that you don’t need to be human to have feelings. The Secret Life of Pets is no different. The trouble is it seems to borrow almost all its tropes from its predecessors – Toy Story in particular – and leaves you wanting some good old Snoopy and Garfield.
In the film, much like adolescent children, the animals bring down the house with heavy metal
For the writers of Secret Life (Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio), pets are really no different from adolescent children. When you are away, your favourite animals bring down the house with heavy metal. They throw crazy parties, and sometimes, they massage themselves with your blender. Max (Louis CK), though, is a more docile terrier. Obsessed with his owner Katie (Elle Kemper), he anxiously waits for her return. One day, however, she brings with her his ‘brother’, a Newfoundland called Duke (Eric Stonestreet). What follows can only best be described as sibling rivalry with a little comic malice thrown in. In the space of only a few minutes, they both are lost in a hostile New York.
Too much happens too quickly in Secret Life. The number of characters in the film is near impossible to count. Max and Duke, for instance, meet a gang of cats in an alley, and just as you begin to enjoy those feline creatures going yakuza, we are introduced to yet another sewer mafia. Having been abandoned, this crew has one single purpose – down with them humans. In the meantime, friends of Max start planning his and Duke’s rescue. So, we then find ourselves in parks, boats, sausage factories and the top of high-rises, but despite traversing a whole city, we don’t stop to see anything.
Illumination Entertainment had given us the compelling Despicable Me and the adorable Minions, and even though the production house seems to have gotten the visuals right, directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney are let down by a hackneyed script. Even a Louis CK can’t tickle you. His lines are plain forgettable. Secret Life only makes you laugh in moments. The white rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart) makes a mafia boss who is confessedly memorable. You have to laugh when he shouts, “Liberated forever. Domesticated never.” Gidget (Jenny Slate) is a ditzy Pomeranian who watches soap operas, but when it comes to saving ‘boyfriend’ Max, she really does know how to kick ass. Children might ultimately enjoy this great animal shindig, but adults might find its pleasures too few.
The film has heart, but in the end, you’ve seen its kind of loving just far too many times before
It might be best to end with a disclaimer. I have never had a pet of my own, nor have I ever thought to myself – “Ah that German Shepherd there, he must live a secret life.” But having met numerous pets, I have come to find that I employ two kinds of ‘cute’ after those furry encounters. The first ‘cute’ is heartfelt, used for puppies or cats who make your lap their home effortlessly. The second ‘cute’ is admittedly forced. It’s what you say when the soles of your slippers have been chewed by an innocent yet annoying mutt. It’s that second kind of ‘cute’ which best describes The Secret Life of Pets. The film has heart, but in the end, you’ve seen its kind of loving just far too many times before.