Review: Low-key charming ‘Secret Life Of Pets’ never quite makes it off the leash

While Illumination Studios has certainly learned many lessons from the success of Pixar, it feels to me like they have also found their own voice in the process. Yes, The Secret Life Of Pets is basically just the first Toy Story with pets instead of toys, but what has become Illumination”s signature is the sheer number of gags per minute they throw at the audience. Far more akin to Looney Tunes than Disney in the grand scheme of things, The Secret Life Of Pets takes that Toy Story template and cranks it up to a dizzying degree, and it is largely successful. The few times the film really tries to land an emotional punch, it is clear just how deeply we all carry our feelings about pets in general, because they don”t have to do much to make it effective.

Last week, I made a major life change and moved in with my girlfriend. One of the biggest adjustments of the entire relationship involves her cat, Josie. When Lisa and I first met, I confessed that I am not a cat person at all. I don”t hate them, but I”m somewhat allergic to longer-haired cats, and the one time my family owned a cat as a child, it was a miserable beast. I”ve always had better luck with dogs, although it”s been decades since I had one of those, either.

My kids are pet-obsessed, and part of the reason is because they”ve never had one. Not a “real” pet. There was that time there was a big white bunny rabbit running around our neighborhood without an evident owner, and we took it in for a week or so, putting up posters and eventually returning it to the family that had given it up for dead already. We also had an unfortunate digression involving some parakeets we found in a cage abandoned on a curb. The boys, particularly Allen, grew very attached to the birds very quickly, outraged that someone would leave them like garbage. We bought them a large cage, moving it inside at night, then setting them outside on our back porch during the day. The birds thrived for a few weeks, and one day, I picked the boys up from school and brought them home. Allen ran out to the back porch to see the birds, and before I even had the front door closed, I heard him screaming. A neighbor”s cat had managed to grab hold of both birds, pulling them halfway through the cage bars before biting their heads off, and Allen found the bodies that way, thus ending the grand bird experiment.

When Allen realized that my moving in with Lisa meant he would now technically have a pet cat, he lost his mind. He has asked me about sixty thousand questions about Josie so far, and with the boys arriving for their first long weekend in the new place on Thursday, he”s just about jumping out of his skin with excitement. She”s a perfect first pet for him because she”s so sweet-tempered, and I look forward to watching how he settles into an ongoing relationship with an animal, especially because I”m so surprised by my own reaction to her. I went from telling my girlfriend that I”m not a cat person to sitting here right now with Josie sitting across my feet, purring in the early afternoon sun in our front room.

My girlfriend now refers to Josie as “your cat,” and she loves to bust me when she hears me talking to the cat. I think there”s something important about the relationship that people have with pets, especially for kids, because I think it”s an exercise in empathy. Having some other living thing depend on you completely is about as big a responsibility as there is, and the benefits from doing it well may not be financial or tangible, but they are undeniable. Having this wee animal learn to trust and love me, and me doing the same, is just one more way to train you to care for others in general. I have no doubt that part of the experience my kids and Lisa and I had with the film is because of the excitement right now about Josie being a new part of the family for us, and you”ll carry your own feelings about pets in and see them reflected back to you by the film as well.

Max (Louis CK) has a perfect set-up with Katie (Ellie Kemper), his human. He”s happy. She”s happy. Everything”s great. Then she brings home a rescue, a giant brown dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet) who immediately makes Max feel like he”s being pushed aside. When Max tries to get rid of Duke, they are launched into one long all-day adventure that teaches both of them to not only appreciate the home they share but the importance of friendship. It”s very simple stuff, very direct in terms of what it”s trying to do and how it does it, and a lot of the film”s success comes down to the casting. While part of me gets nervous about the idea of a family animated film voiced by Louis CK and Kevin Hart (who plays a feral radicalized bunny named Snowball), they both turn out to be well-cast. Louis actually feels like the perfect choice because there is a hint of pathos that he adds with his voice work, never tipping over into forced sentimentality. Stonestreet”s character looks like he was created by the Muppet Workshops, with a tactile quality to the design, and Stonestreet plays him like a big amiable giant. Jenny Slate racks up a second big animated role for the year, and she”s just as good here as she was in Zootopia. Lake Bell, Albert Brooks, Dana Carvey, Bobby Moynihan, Steve Coogan, Hannibal Buress, and more all do quick, capable work, and the character designs are effective and simple.

What I liked most about the film was the overall energy. Like the Minions film and the Minions short that is in front of this film, it is pretty much nonstop, and like any comedy that throws 1000 jokes at you, some land and some don”t, but it”s the confident, cheerful energy of the humor that carries the day. I wish more of the movie dealt with the way pets deal with day to day life in their homes while their owners are out, and I still think that first teaser trailer, made up mostly of material from the first five or ten minutes of this film, is the purest expression of the overall notion behind the movie.

Director Chris Renaud and screenwriters Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch all seemed happy to explore any idea, and the film certainly throws a ton of ideas at the audience. It would be easy to criticize the film for what it isn”t, and it does feel like the entire thing is pitched at a certain surface level, but it doesn”t feel like they tried to make that film and failed. It feels more like Illumination has made the decision to steer directly into their strengths. And while they don”t write this one to be particularly deep, connecting all of the farce to the underlying truth of the way people bond with their pets was a canny intuitive move. They get that deeper resonance simply by virtue of what we feel before we ever walk into the theater, and it gives the film a little extra added weight.

This one won”t stick to you the way the great movies do, but it was a genuinely enjoyable sit, and it further pushes the idea that Illumination is one of the rare start-up animation houses that has actually cemented a future for themselves. They”ll keep doing this, and we”ll keep laughing, and maybe eventually they”ll even push further. For now, though, they”ve got it down.

The Secret Life Of Pets is in theaters on Friday, July 8.