Max (Louis C.K.) is a terrier who enjoys a comfy life in a Manhattan high-rise, until his owner and best friend brings home Duke, a giant inconsiderate and aloof Newfoundland (Modern Family‘s Eric Stonestreet). In a series of attempts to get the other in trouble, the two are left stranded and lost on the streets of New York, and are forced to work together to find their way home, all the while trying to avoid a gang of former housepets (led by bunny Kevin Hart) who are hell bent on destroying humans.
The plot borrows heavily from both Toy Story and Toy Story 2, as well as Trains Planes & Automobiles, though it doesn’t come close to matching the humor or the charm of any of them. I don’t think it’s coincidence that the initial trailer offered very little in way of plot, but rather concentrated on the aspects of what pets do when left to their own devices. Those scenes, reserved for the opening sequences, are cute and witty, and really set a very unique tone. Unfortunately, that tone is quickly discarded, and we’re left with a rather formulaic story. The Secret Life of Pets would have worked incredibly well as a short film, had it ended after the first seven minutes.
One of the biggest issues with the film is that the conflict between Max and Duke is resolved almost immediately, and we’re left with a rather standard buddy adventure movie. With films like Trains, Planes & Automobiles and Toy Story, the two leads, whose personalities are very different from each other, are forced to resolve their differences in order to accomplish a common goal, eventually creating a bond and friendship. This is typically done over the course if the film, creating not only tension, but some opportunities for real comedic moments, but we’re deprived of those opportunities in this film, as it happens so quickly.
Louis C.K., who ranks amongst George Carlin and Richard Pryor as one of comedy’s greatest minds, is completely wasted here. The material gives him very little to work with, forcing him to act as the reactionary straight man. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a few moments, but not nearly enough for the star of the film, let alone one as funny as C.K. I would assume someone with his skills as a writer and filmmaker would have recognized that the material was mediocre at best, but I suppose the allure of starring in an animated film is tough to pass up.
The rest of the casting is pretty effective, with a few real standouts. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kevin Hart’s cuddly yet murderous bunny Snowball gets his own film. It’s not often when you want to spend more time with the film’s antagonist than with the film’s heroes (Spaceballs come to mind). I would have also liked to see more of Bobby Moynihan as Mel the hyperactive pug, as well as Dana Carvey’s elderly paraplegic basset hound, Pops (Carvey is essentially playing his Grumpy Old Man character from SNL, but it’s still pretty darn fun to watch). Like Louie C.K., comedy greats like Steve Coogan, Hannibal Burres and Albert Brooks are completed under utilized (this is the second animated film of the summer to under use Albert Brooks).
Perhaps the most disappointing use of a character is Eric Stonestreet’s Duke. Duke just isn’t as developed as other characters of his type, like John Candy’s Del Griffith in Trains, Planes & Automobiles, or Pumba from The Lion King, resulting in rather bland chemistry between him and Max. If Max is going to be the straight man, then Duke needs to be a stronger funny man, but unfortunately they both fall short.
The Secret Life of Pets is charming, and it has it’s moments, but unfortunately neither the humor or heart are as strong as they should be. It’s worth watching, but you may want to wait until it’s available on Blu-ray or streaming services.