Twenty-one years ago, Toy Story started a revolution. Not as a breakthrough in computer animation — though it was that as well — but as a breakthrough in imagination. What went on when our backs were turned? Once we left the room and shut off the lights, would inanimate objects spring to life, establish political systems, social hierarchies, develop romantic relationships and carry grudges?
It’s a romantic notion to turn objects into friends with personalities, but those personalities are only as inventive as the humans who conceive of them. That is what makes Toy Story, and its subsequent sequels, so magical and The Secret Life of Pets so bland. Set in a cartoony version of New York City — somewhat inspired by Dr. Seuss’s tall, slender structures — Secret Life of Pets follows half-a-dozen furry friends as they go about their day after the owners leave for work.
At the center is Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), a loyal terrier who loves his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper), more than anything in the whole wide world. Why wouldn’t he? Max is a dog, and dogs are man’s best friends. At least they are in the movies. Secret Life plays by pre-established rules: dogs are loyal, rodents are hardworking, predators have difficulties suppressing their murderous tendencies, everyone looks up to the elderly and cats are assholes — cats always get a bad rap in movies. Standard shorthand that has become tiresome and stifling. Only two characters: Gidget (Jenny Slate), a telenovela loving ass-kick Pomeranian, and Snowball (Kevin Hart), a fluffy bunny with murderous intents, are allowed their own individuality.
But back to Max: his life with Katie is perfect until she brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a giant shaggy dog that looks and acts like a clumsy Chewbacca. Duke immediately takes over Max’s bed, eats his food and establishes dominance. Max retaliates by knocking over Katie’s possessions to blame on Duke. The battle continues to the streets where it separates them from the pack and their dog walker. Now Duke and Max are in real trouble and must evade capture from Animal Control and tough strays, namely Ozone (Steve Coogan) the leader of a pack of vicious cats. Seriously, what do Hollywood studios have against cats?
This leads Max and Duke to seek the protection of Snowball and his rag-tag band of flushed pets that dwell in the sewers. Above ground, Gidget — who has a crush on Max — enlists the help of a falcon, Tiberius (Albert Brooks); the upstairs cat, Chloe (Lake Bell); Max’s dog friends, Buddy (Hannibal Buress) and Mel (Bobby Moynihan); and a wizened old beagle, Pops (Dana Carvey), to rescue Max.
And Max could use some rescuing, because this dog has been far too domesticated for an adventure his on. From the clutches of a hazing ritual to the New York sewer system, Brooklyn and back, Max and Duke find themselves on a little odyssey. There is even a bizarre side trip to a wiener factory, where Max and Duke eat to their heart’s content in a wild and weird musical dance sequence straight out of a Busby Berkeley musical.
The Secret Life of Pets is just off. There are some heartfelt moments, but they are drowned out by the obnoxious nonsense that surrounds them. The animation style is recycled from previous Universal/Illumination entries — the spindly legged humans seemingly walked over from Despicable Me while the chorus line of wieners look and behave like those ever-popular Minions — and the vocal performances are lack-luster. There is enough eye-popping color and silliness to keep some children entertained some of the time, and enough street-smart dialogue to pique an adult’s interest from time to time, but, to borrow a line from Abraham Lincoln: You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.