It’s strange to say a cute but conniving lap dog is the role Louis C.K. was born to play, yet here we are.
The comedian, who gleefully tackles taboos in his stand-up and autobiographical sitcom Louie, lends his voice to Max, an excitable terrier who lives happily in Manhattan with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). In voiceover Max explains they’re basically soul mates while a joyful montage races through Max’s puppy years in Katie’s enormous apartment, where the pair romp, cuddle, and admire her enviable view of the city’s skyline. But then came Duke (Eric Stonestreet).
After a long day of vigilantly waiting for Katie to return from wherever it is humans go all day, Max is horrified when she comes home with a new dog, who is as big as a sofa and of the breed Snuffleupagus (judging from his shagginess and size). Max begs Katie to ditch this stray, pleading, “He’s scary and frightening and the death of all good things!” And in that moment, it’s clear that Louis C.K. was perfectly cast in this cheeky comedy about life and New York City.
Max is not a “bad dog,” but he’s a total jerk to Duke, threatening to have him booted back to the dreaded Pound and mocking him in front of their dog-walking pack. C.K. shifts seamlessly from Max’s puppy-like enthusiasm to neurotic panic and smug condescension. In many ways, The Secret Life of Pets feels like a Louie episode. A good
guy dog sees his routine disturbed, panics, lashes out, and ends up on an unexpected misadventure in the often surreal realm of New York City. In this case, it’s not witnessing the death of a crazy homeless man then going on an amazing date. It’s getting lost in a big city, and making a faux pas that gets you chased by animal control and a gang of anti-human animals who call themselves “The Flushed Pets.” (“It’s like a club, but with biting and scratching!”)
The story itself is shaggy and messy, bounding between Max and Duke’s efforts to get home, and the rescue effort launched by neighboring house pets, led by a feisty love-struck Pomeranian, voiced by the ever-wonderful Jenny Slate. Like Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me franchise, the film is a series of funny set pieces tenuously strung together by a preposterous plot. So, The Secret Life of Pets isn’t Pixar-level in storytelling or emotional resonance, but it’s totally charming nonetheless.
Pet lovers will melt over the observational humor of pet behavior, from obsession with bouncing balls, to fury over squirrels, and the undeniable allure of chasing a laser pointer’s light. The voice cast infuses vibrant character into these quirky creatures. Stonestreet brings a blustering brood to Duke, while Kevin Hart channels his shouting shtick into a fluffy white bunny, furious he’s been ousted from a failed magician’s hat and life. Albert Brooks offers a delicious mix of threat and frustration as a hawk who fights his predatory instincts to make friends. Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, and Dana Carvey score laughs as a trio of playful but dopey dogs, while Steve Coogan spits English gangster menace as a hairless alley cat. But the scene-stealers of this kids’ flick are the comediennes.
Slate’s high-pitched and elastic voice makes her plucky Pomeranian a furry little force of nature, whether she’s swooning over the drama of a telenovella, cajoling a dangerous bird to be her new bestie, or fighting off hordes of Flushed Pets (including the requisite sewer alligator) with her bare paws. As a divine foil to this hyper hound, there’s Lake Bell’s perpetually over it cat, Chloe. You don’t need to be a cat lover (I am decidedly not) to appreciate the underrated actress’s side-eyeing vocal performance that soaks in self-importance and sarcasm, then boasts such cutting lines as, “Look, I’m your friend, and as your friend I got to be honest with you: I don’t care about you or your problems.”
Dog lover or cat lover, kid or grown-up, you’ll find plenty to relish in this deeply silly and sweet movie. But a quick warning to parents: The Secret Life of Pets might be a bit scary for more sensitive tykes. At my screening, one child was absolutely howling over a scene involving a massive, one-eyed, one-fanged viper, and an action-packed finale that threatened to sink our canine heroes into the East River.