Sometimes you want a nuanced, emotionally shattering, life-affirming cartoon. And sometimes you just want to see somebody fall down or blow up or have something silly happen to them. We live in an era where Pixar defines what it is that we demand from our feature cartoons, but why should that be? Why can’t there be room for a stupid “poo poo caca” joke in our cartoons? If lowbrow was good enough for Chuck Jones, it’s good enough for me.
Lowbrow is definitely good enough for Illumination, and with their Minions they’ve been pursuing a kind of ersatz Looney Tunes vibe for a while now. But for my money it wasn’t until The Secret Life of Pets that they really found the correct formula. The Minions stuff works as shorts (as Bugs Bunny always did) because they’re just about gags. The Illumination feature length films never quite grabbed me on a character and story level before, even as they were filled with some pretty good, broadly delivered jokes. I just didn’t care, and sitting through a parade of gags that had no real structure or momentum was a drag. But Secret Life of Pets - which quite clearly owes an enormous debt to Toy Story - fixes that. I like these characters, and I care about what’s happening to them in between silly slapstick scenes.
Louis CK voices Max, a happy little dog who has the perfect life with his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). He hangs out all day with his animal pals in the building, everybody is happy and all he thinks about is when he’ll see Katie again. But then one day Katie returns home with a new dog, a big guy named Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and Woody, er I mean Max, gets jealous and feels threatened. The two new roommates end up lost in New York, getting entangled with a revolutionary anti-owner group of displaced animals led by a vicious bunny (Kevin Hart) while their friends - led by the puffy but tough Gidget (Jenny Slate) try to rescue them. The ensuing hijinks are loose and pleasurable, with the main animals being supported by a very lovely cast of dogs and cats who are voiced well enough to give the thinly-sketched sidekicks some real heart.
There’s a lot of real heart in the movie, which finds a nice spot between goofy comedy and small sweet moments - the kind that Pixar would lean on hard, wringing every tear out of your eyes. Directors Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud, working from a script by Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch, go easier. They bring a light touch to sad scenes and emotional reveals, which helps them maintain the film’s generally genial tone.
There are those adult cartoon fans who roll their eyes at animated movies that make pop culture references, seemingly unaware that the classic Looney Tunes are awash in them, but The Secret Life of Pets doesn’t go overboard. It’s definitely a film for NOW - it’s not going for a timeless quality by any means. No movie that includes the dreaded Pharrell song “Happy” is going for timeless - but it’s for now in the way that cartoons sometimes should be. We shouldn’t always be so precious about them. They can be transcendent and beautiful, but not every one has to be a Miyazaki, just as not every album you listen to has to be Tchaikovsky. Sometimes you want to dance around to pop, and sometimes you want something that on the surface seems disposable. But just as the Looney Tunes and the great pop acts of history prove, sometimes it’s the disposable stuff that sticks with you the most because it’s being made for the present, to be enjoyed, and that’s what The Secret Life of Pets is like.
In the past I’ve rolled my eyes at the trend of having famous people do voices in cartoons. I’ve wondered aloud ‘Why not just get great voice actors!,’ but for the first time I think the gimmick works. Take the weiner dog, Buddy. I couldn’t tell you much about him besides the fact that he has a funny way of climbing due to his long body, but by having the familiar and agreeable voice of Hannibal Buress come out of his mouth Buddy takes on a deeper dimensionality. It’s a shortcut, sure, but I’m glad Lake Bell is playing the cat Chloe because while I didn’t spend the whole film thinking “Oh that’s Lake Bell,” I did feel familiar and comfortable with her.
There was one voice actor who got my attention (and no, it wasn’t Dana Carvey as Pops, although he manages to sell some dopey potty humor that nobody else could have sold): Albert Brooks. It’s pretty weird that Albert Brooks is in TWO talking animal cartoons this summer, and it’s even weirder that both of them climax with an escape attempt out of a truck that is plummeting into the water. But get this: Secret Life of Pets is better than Finding Dory, even if it’s not quite ‘better.’ Like, Secret Life of Pets ends with this big rumble on the Brooklyn Bridge, and if Pixar had made the movie every animal would have had a moment that paid off their arc. Secret Life of Pets can’t be bothered, and it just pays off a couple of characters (it does not pay off Brooks’ falcon, who bizarrely has zero to do in the whole film). Dory’s crashing truck scene is, on paper, better because it’s tying up all the characters and a bunch of side jokes into one moment. But at the same time Dory’s truck crash utterly destroys the world of the movie; the film finds itself going TOO cartoony, believe it or not, and while all the structural pieces work the movie itself is badly damaged by this tonal aberration.
The Secret Life of Pets doesn’t have that structural perfection but it does maintain its own tone; when all the animals - including a tattooed pig and two alligators - have that showdown on the Brooklyn Bridge it feels like a reasonable escalation of all that went before. Again, to go to the Looney Tunes thing Secret Life has established an alternate world where the rules are loose and can be bent and broken in the service of a good joke. It’s that consistency that makes Secret Life a better film; it knows what it is, it delivers on what it’s promising and it has a good time along the way.
I laughed all the way through The Secret Life of Pets, even at jokes that were really dumb or obvious or broad, because they’re so expertly written and delivered. It’s HARD to do silly physical comedy and broad schtick without being just terrible, but Secret Life nails it. What’s more, Secret Life is sneakily sweet, and in the final scene of the movie, where all the animals are reunited with their owners at the end of a long, weird day, I found myself choked up. The movie smartly keeps these animals as animals, even as it has them break all laws of physics and reason, and the script smartly observes their behavior and grafts it onto them at the most opportune moments for comedy. That mix - broad comedy and acutely observed pet behavior - brings it all to life.
I laughed, I almost cried, the movie didn’t wear out its welcome. In a summer season that has been so utterly dire to date these things are blessings. And they’re harder to accomplish than you think, especially when you’re trying to throw in some good poop jokes along the way.