There was a time, not so long ago, when cartoons were just expected to make us laugh. Maybe a feature would have an exciting adventure, or a lesson about togetherness – y’know… family friendly stuff. But as long as it was a hoot to watch it was fulfilling its animated destiny. Then Pixar came along and ruined it for everyone. Their films had all of those qualities, plus human themes that nearly always brought us to tears. With a light touch, Pixar made us rethink what it meant to be alive, and suddenly the bar rose.
So many animated projects since then have been entertaining, but shrug-worthy as they stumble to catch up to the well-woven humor and deeper meaning of Pixar’s messages. Shrek settled for pop culture references and the message that it’s okay preferable if you’re not traditionally beautiful. Kung Fu Panda is mostly fat jokes in a movie about believing in yourself, even if you’re fat. How To Train Your Dragon is high on adventure, with a tale about the importance of understanding others – specifically dragons – unless those dragons are super-big-and-out-of-control-then-fuck-that-noise.
It’s taken a while for the animation world to recover and find its own voice amongst Pixar classics. Even Disney is only now getting their footing. The Lego Movie is uniquely weird, with a wonderfully deep message that suits its premise. Illumination Entertainment is slowly making a name for themselves too, with their incredibly popular Despicable Me franchise. The great thing about Despicable Me was that it felt like an especially adorable episode of Looney Tunes. It didn’t try all that hard to be poignant or make its audience cry. It was enough to create an amusing protagonist with amusing goals, and then throw hilarious wrenches in his plans until he grew a bit as a person. This is what The Secret Life of Pets does, and it does it well. If the Minions well runs dry, Illumination can rest easy knowing that they have a fantastic new IP on their hands with limitless potential
Pets is childish, broad, pandering, and very, very funny. It’s obvious that there was a checklist of YouTube animal video tropes that the animators were asked to work into the film. This would be irritating if it wasn’t so secondary to the film’s objectives. The movie is too busy with its own plot and amusing situational jokes to bother with stopping to explain its own background noise. These silly behaviors largely just color the differences between the species of pets in question, and even sometimes manage to garner an occasional chuckle.
As for that plot – it’s nothing terribly groundbreaking, but in a summer of disjointed event films, it’s refreshingly functional. Moreover, it drives our two protagonists – bickering house dogs Max and Duke – on a misadventure and into the hands of an anti-authoritarian gang of disaffected ex-pets. Max’s neighbor and secret admirer, Gidget, begins her own telenovela-fueled misadventure to find him, roping in a gaggle of funny, but mostly extraneous, characters to join her quest.
The best of these? Dana Carvey’s half-paralyzed “Dogfather” of the domesticated neighborhood. Words cannot describe how pleased I was to realize his Grumpy Old Man character from SNL appeared in this film in animal form. He comes short of reminding us that “In my day, walkies were grueling and paralyzed you… AND WE LIKED IT!” But it’s still a joy to hear Carvey doing what he does best.
Louis C.K. was also an incredible pick to play our protagonist, Max. Louis’ whole appeal revolves around how earnestly and succinctly he sums up his disgusting human nature. There’s a calm honesty there that feels very appropriate for a dog. Despite the anthropomorphization of these talking animals, his performance is an extension of how well the film adheres to the behaviors and desires that make these creatures tick.
The standout laugh-bringers, however, are Kevin Hart’s fluffy menace, Snowball the Rabbit, and Jenny Slate’s Gidget. Like a tattooed bouncer named “Tiny”, both of them play against conventions in the way the best Looney Tunes or Muppets characters do. Snowball is basically a talking version of the killer rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and there’s something inherently joyous about a villain who so revels in his wickedness. Casting him as the cutest character in the film just adds to the fun.
Gidget is as exuberant as she is naive, and that’s what makes her so darn lovable. For those who watch Steven Universe (and if you don’t, you should really be watching Steven Universe), she’s basically Steven in dog form. She’s endlessly optimistic, a leader of hopeless causes, fiercely protective of her friends, and charmingly starry-eyed when exposed to messages of love and hope.
As for the film’s technical achievements – it’s beautifully animated. Lighting effects and hair counts aside, the character designs in this film are great! The animals’ anthropomorphization is aided a bit by the fact that they all look adorably muppety. Illumination also does a great job of giving them distinct, simple silhouettes that reflect the charms of 2D animation.
I’ll forgo separating out my usual 3D Recommendation section since this film is so clearly designed for that format. Pets leans into the gimmicky aspects of 3D, while still using it to appropriately accentuate the cartoonish mayhem on display. Great use of negative and positive space ensures that you’re getting the best bang for your buck. And, as always, being 3D animated, the effect is flawless.
The Secret Life of Pets can’t necessarily be held to the high standard of a Pixar masterpiece, but it absolutely makes the most of being a fun cartoon. If you long for the heyday of slapstick animation with zany characters, this film is going to be your jam. For everybody else, there are far worse ways to keep the kids entertained for an afternoon.