Leaving “The Secret Life of Pets,” I wondered if this wasn’t the product of over-caffeinated pedigreed pet owners, each vying to show the cuteness quota of their respective pets. This is several underdeveloped stories stuffed into one crazy, frenetic movie that is eager to please as a Golden Retriever puppy. Despite that, there was plenty to delight dog owners.
The star of this movie is a small terrier mix named Max (Louis C.K.) who as found by Katie (Ellie Kemper) in a box and taken to live in one of those impossibly spacious apartments in a quaint part of New York City not far from Central Park.
Max spends his days waiting for Katie to come home, but also flirts with the white fluffy dog named Gidget (Jenny Slate) who lives in the building across the street and gets visits from the obese tabby cat Chloe (Lake Bell), a green and yellow budgie Sweet Pea (Tara Strong), a black and tan dachshund Buddy (Hannibal Buress), a lost guinea pig Norman (Chris Renaud) and a hyperactive pug Mel (Bobby Moynihan).
Thinking Max is lonely, Katie brings home another dog: the large brown shaggy Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Duke may be goofie in front of Katie, but he’s willing to throw his weight around in private with Max. The first night, Duke squishes Max out of Max’s bed and then eats all of Max’s food.
Of course, Katie has done everything wrong. In real life, Max would have ended up dead and Duke back in the animal shelter as a dangerous dog.
Duke isn’t inherently bad. He was a pound puppy and knew he was saved from death when he was adopted by Katie. Max eventually uses that fear. He purposely breaks things knowing that Katie won’t blame him, but blame Duke instead. When the dog walker comes to take them out to the park, Duke gets his revenge. Yet Duke’s actions backfire. The dog walker, too busy flirting, doesn’t miss the two dogs. Duke and Max are threatened by a gang of cats led by a battle-scarred Sphynx cat Ozone (Steve Coogan) who removes their collars. While escaping the alley cats, Duke and Max are caught by the villainous animal control. Before they can make it to the pound, a white rabbit called Snowball (Kevin Hart) frees them while breaking out his mate/protector/beast of burden–a muzzled bulldog.
Riding the bulldog, Snowball takes Max and Duke down to the sewers. You ever wonder what happened to pets that were “flushed” away? Ever wonder if there are alligators down in the sewers? In this world, the sewers is filled with cats, rats, lizards, snakes and other unwanted pets. This Flushed Pets gang bitterly despise their former owners for their thoughtless behavior and are about to initiate Max and Duke into their gang until something goes catastrophically wrong and this time there are not cats involved. The Flushed Pets chase Max and Duke out of the sewers and Duke saves Max as they find themselves on a boat to Brooklyn. The Flushed Pets gang follows, vowing revenge.
Back on their home street, Max’s neighbor, Gidget notices that Max and Duke have not returned and with the help of a red-tailed hawk named Tiberius (Albert Brooks) and an old Basset Hound on wheels (Dana Carvey), she rounds up Max’s friends and even an enemy (Ozone) to ferret out where Max and Duke are.
In the end, Max and Duke will become friends and find their way home to Katie. Katie will be none the wiser. Snowball will get a new lease on life. Max and Gidget will become sweethearts.
There are some plot holes. Duke doesn’t mourn for his former owner. When he does recall him at an opportune moment, the timeline doesn’t add up (Spoiler alert). If Duke was lost and captured by animal control, then put up for adoption, and we know in most cases dogs aren’t kept for more than a month in local animal shelters, there is hardly time for Duke’s owner to die and for another family to move in.
Katie, Max and Duke’s owner, seems to love dogs, but does not have any idea of how to introduce them nor train them. The movie does a disservice to animal control officers everywhere, making them the bad guys of the movie.
After the cute introductions of the characters, one wishes there had been more character development of Max’s crew beyond the sight-gags for the Buddy the Dachshund. Sweet Pea has very little to do. The transformation of Sweet Pea from a spoiled lap dog princess into Miss Ninja saving her crush Max a great twist, but as a character Max isn’t all that appealing. The transition of Tiberius from predator to Gidget’s BFF and protector also isn’t convincing as anything more than a plot convenience.
“The Secret Life of Pets” still works as entertainment for pet lovers everywhere who will doubtlessly recognize certain types and want to champion their own beloved pets. There are also teachable moments on responsibility toward pets. I wouldn’t mind revisiting the two apartments houses and follow the secret lives of the residents in future shorts or feature films. Universal Pictures has a winner here.