In one of many throwaway gags in The Secret Life of Pets, a group of dogs gathering for an all-important rescue operation is momentarily sidetracked by a butterfly, which sends them into a riot of leaping and yelping. Pets are easily distracted, you see. And you know who else is easily distracted? Kids. And, actually, audiences in general. The Secret Life of Pets is an ADD-addled mess of a movie — and that, amazingly, is its charm.
It was made by the same collective of animators and writers responsible for the Despicable Me series and Minions, who manage to blend a cool, angular midcentury design aesthetic with a kind of direct, infantile honesty; their images are refined, their jokes gloriously stupid. That simplicity of approach ensures that Pets stays true to its basic concept: When the owners of New York City’s dogs and cats and birds and hamsters leave for the day, their animals come out to play — and chaos ensues. You could say it’s Toy Story with pets — or Finding Nemo with land animals — but that wouldn’t quite do justice to its vivid, hellraising cacophony.
There is an actual story, though it’s a rough one, serving mainly as an excuse to justify a bunch of disconnected jokes and set pieces. Vivacious Jack Russell terrier Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), who calls himself “the luckiest dog in New York,” has his deep attachment to owner Katie challenged when she brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a big, hairy lug of a mutt. Suddenly, Max’s easy life — one spent waiting at home while chatting away with his pals in the apartment complex, including Gidget (Jenny Slate), the white Pomeranian secretly in love with him, and Chloe (Lake Bell), a snooty tabby — feels like it might be on shaky ground.
The war of attrition between Max and Duke escalates until one day, the desperate Duke, attempting to abandon his smaller rival during a day out with the dog walker, manages to get both of them lost. The duo’s ensuing, episodic adventure involves Cockney alley cats, Animal Control and an anarchist collective called the Flushed Pets, who are led by a deranged rabbit (Kevin Hart) and inhabit a subterranean realm guarded by vipers and giant crocodiles. Sound surreal? The whole film is a relentless cavalcade of weirdness: tattooed pigs, strung-out lizards, piranhas and one particularly hallucinatory musical number set in a sausage factory filled with hordes of dancing, soon-to-be-consumed wieners.
Don’t look for any throughlines, ’cause there aren’t any. The rivalry between Max and Duke dissipates early on — I won’t say it’s resolved, because it’s mostly just forgotten. There’s some brief business about “finding your inner wolf,” which is abandoned within 30 seconds. The tone is all over the place. Wild slapstick leads to spurts of sentiment. There are even a couple of deaths stuffed in there, amid all that vivacious chasing and jumping and yelling and careening. But, again, the all-over-the-place-ness has a weird integrity. It’s almost like you’re watching everything unfold at the speed at which the filmmakers are imagining it, digesting the jokes as quickly as they can think them up. Nothing feels calculated about this film — which is something of an achievement, since animated movies famously take years (and tens of millions of dollars) to produce.
Of course, just because something feels uncalculated doesn’t mean it is. Illumination Entertainment, the folks behind this film, know exactly what they’re doing, as they did something similar with the entertainingly silly Minions last year, which came on the heels of Pixar’s impeccably scripted and structured (and ultimately Oscar-winning) hit Inside Out. Minions still managed to clean up at the box office, earning more than $1 billion worldwide. With this new film, Illumination obviously is hoping for a similar success. This time, its adult-friendly foil is Pixar’s powerful, acclaimed and immensely successful Finding Dory – to which Pets will surely provide an engagingly dumb, vaguely down-market alternative.
The calculation doesn’t end there. The story keeps threatening to go dark, but it always pulls back just in time. The conflict between the kill-all-humans anarchist pets and the domesticated ones, for example, hints at something more uncomfortable — though never quite uncomfortable enough to ever feel like more than a grace note. I was reminded throughout of George Miller’s masterful, expensive 1998 sequel Babe: Pig in the City; now there was a kids’ film about runaway animals in a big metropolis that actually dared to go to some nerve-racking places. It was a work of art … and, as it happens, a financial disaster that nearly collapsed its studio, Universal.
The Secret Life of Pets is also a Universal release, and it feels like it has finally cracked the code on making a silly-animals movie that’s just deranged enough to keep you watching yet harmless enough not to truly offend anyone. It may not be a work of art, but its crazed, zigzagging energy is something to behold.