Kids tend to come out of movies with questions. Here’s a fun one to anticipate on the drive home from The Secret Life of Pets: “Ma, when we flushed Flipper, did he go to a sewer under the city and join a revolutionary gang hell-bent on overthrowing the pet owner hegemony?”
Bunny Snowball – a fluffy-wuffy bundle of class outrage, voiced by Kevin Hart with pungent fury – is the leader of that gang, but disappointingly, he isn’t the hero here. (Of course he isn’t. Hollywood doesn’t hire black actors to top-bill its animated entertainments.) Instead, the loyal if unadventurous terrier Max (Louis C.K.) is the main attraction. Max is happy with domesticated life: He counts owner Katie (Kemper) as his soul mate, and he’s got an apartment building full of fur friends to pal around with while she’s away at work. But when Katie brings home a rescue mutt named Duke (Stonestreet), a wedge is driven into their tight twosome, and then Duke gets them both picked up by animal services. Cue the incredible journey home.
An animated Homeward Bound hopscotching through New York’s boroughs, The Secret Life of Pets paints the city with an ecstatic brush, from the thin-air altitudes of construction cranes to down into the city’s watery bowels: a riot of life with its own secrets revealed about small-quarters living. Turn a corner, and there’s a sausage factory for a snack-attack; turn another corner, and you’re in an alley with feral cats hanging from clotheslines, claws out. The Secret Life may take a dog’s perspective, but it’s not a bad metaphor for the neighboring nations of heaven and hell found in New York City, block to block.
The metaphor extends in a less fruitful direction: The movie, like the city itself, is so go! go! go!, there’s not a lot of time to savor – the splendid visuals, or the less roundly imagined characters. The domesticated pets, a pampered, largely indistinguishable lot, can’t hold a candle to Snowball. Crafted by much of the same creative team behind the Despicable Me franchise, The Secret Life has wit, for sure, but it could use more balls.
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