Say this much for The Secret Life of Pets: It goes its entire 90-minute runtime without making a single dog-poop gag. Oh sure, there’s a bunny-poop gag. And a dog-pee gag. But considering the film’s dog-centric nature, it’s notable that the latest animated family offering from Illumination Entertainment never relies on bowel movements (or flatulence, thank you very much) for the sake of a juvenile laugh. Hell, “Mower Minions” — the short that precedes Secret Life, which follows Illumination’s yellow, suppository-shaped meal tickets through an ill-advised lawn-care gig — makes two dog-turd gags in under five minutes. Considering this is the level most mainstream family entertainment is operating at these days, The Secret Life of Pets‘ restraint in this seemingly foregone matter is surprising.
Unfortunately, this exceptional excremental restraint is one of the only surprises offered by The Secret Life of Pets, which borrows heavily from Toy Story, with a dash of Oliver & Company and a pinch of Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, for most of its narrative and comedic machinations. The Woody figure here is Max, a cute lil’ scruffer voiced by Louis C.K., whose entire world revolves around his loving owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). When Katie arrives home one day with a lumbering, Snuffleupagus-looking new dog named Buzz—er, Duke (Eric Stonestreet), Max is instantly jealous of his new “brother,” and plots to hasten the new dog’s exit from his and Katie’s happy, settled lives. The rivalry between the two would-be Alpha dogs escalates, until a twist of fate or three leaves them lost and collarless in the wilds of New York City. Will they have to work together to figure out how to get home, possibly encountering some wacky misfits along the way? Does a dog poop on the carpet?
With a narrative this battle-tested, The Secret Life of Pets can devote its energy to its real purpose: delivering kid-friendly gags that parents can tolerate, perhaps even chuckle at knowingly from time to time, for as long as it takes the plot to run its paces. Outside of a heartstring-tugging closing montage (Thesis statement: Pets! They love us!) and a cheap “twist” involving Duke’s origins, Secret Life has none of the emotional weight viewers might expect from a similar offering from Pixar — or even Dreamworks on a good day. This is a featherweight film that tosses off good-natured gags (and a few mean-spirited ones, too) like so many Milkbones, more concerned with distraction and instant gratification than with crafting a memorable story or characters.
There are some exceptions to the latter point. Jenny Slate is tremendous, croaky fun as Gidget, a pampered Pomeranian who harbors a not-so-secret crush on Max. Most of The Secret Life of Pets’ best scenes involve Gidget, and the ones pairing her with an ornery hawk voiced by Albert Brooks are a genuine treat. And Kevin Hart’s Snowball, a psychotic widdle-biddy-bunny who leads a sewer-dwelling band of strays called The Flushed Pets, is such a flat-out odd creation that his mere presence automatically makes any scene at least 10 percent more interesting (and adorable). But heroes Max and Duke are as flat as their lovingly rendered fur is three-dimensional, even when romping through a psychedelic hallucination that’s basically Homer Simpson’s “The Land of Chocolate,” only with sausage. Because dogs like sausage, see?
The Secret Life of Pets’ comedic observations about pets and their owners rarely get more outlandish than that: Dogs are kind of dumb, cats are aloof, everything stops when a squirrel appears — stop me if you’ve heard this before. There’s plenty going on in Secret Life that qualifies as “cute” or “silly,” but there’s a safe, rounded-edge quality to most of the jokes that allows them to roll easily off the brain without leaving so much as an indent. The Secret Life of Pets has gathered an impressive roster of comedic talent to give voice to its furry cast — in addition to those named, Hannibal Buress, Dana Carvey, Lake Bell, Steve Coogan, and Bobby Moynihan all contribute — but offers the bare minimum in terms of comedic ambition. This is domesticated comedy, defanged and declawed for easy assimilation into the family realm.
Unfortunately, what The Secret Life of Pets lacks in bite, it fails to make up for in heart. Centering a story on beloved pets trying to get home is stacking the deck, which makes Secret Life’s failure to deliver any substantial emotional payoff especially disappointing. Pet-lovers may feel a tug or two at their hearts while watching the film, but that tug is most likely connected to a fond remembrance of a real-life pet — perhaps one who’s waiting patiently for you to get home from that mediocre animated movie about pets far less interesting and lovable than him.