An Animator’s Take on The Secret Life of Pets

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One of the most anticipated movies this summer is Universal Pictures’ The Secret Life of Pets, a 3-D animated feature that’s about, well, exactly what it sounds like. A product of Illumination Entertainment (the ones who brought us Despicable Me and Groo’s adorable Minions), the film provides a solid helping of animation goodness that, while not the tastiest dish on this year’s menu, provides some comfort food for the cinematic soul. Moviegoers are lapping it up.

Although SLOP (an unfortunate acronym, so let’s just call it Pets) lacks any interesting character movement or cutting-edge animation techniques (see my previous review of Disney’s Zootopia), I have nothing but respect for the animation in this film. Ever tried to animate a quadruped? It ain’t easy, my friend. Twice the legs is twice the trouble. It’s hard to do convincingly, to a point where your audience accepts what they’re looking at as natural, yet still exaggerated enough to be cartoony. The character design and unique motions of the different animals are also well done. Pets is good, solid animation.

The premise of Pets is to show us how our beloved animal companions—be they dogs, cats, birds, rodents or reptiles—experience the human world. And not just any human world, but one of the most unnatural, challenging environments an animal could be forced to cope with: New York City. Their interactions with each other, as well as with their owners and other humans, afford ample opportunities for humor, misunderstandings and general chaos. Humans’ own perceptions of the lives their pets lead are exploited to the hilt, making comedic sense of why pets do what they do. Apparently viewers like this…a lot.

This premise, however, lasts only about 30 minutes into the film, after which we accept Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), the plucky canine protagonist, as pretty much a human-animal, along with Duke (Eric Stonestreet), his disagreeable, newly adopted, hirsute roommate/rival (also a dog, five times Max’s size), and Max’s wacky gang of neighbor pets: a dachshund-and-pug comedy duo; an obese, disaffected cat; a parakeet that doesn’t talk; a guinea pig with no directional sense; and, most notably, Gidget (Jenny Slate), a fluffed-out, hyperfeminine white Pomeranian (I think) who is infatuated with Max and will do anything to help him out of a jam.

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS, from left: Mel (voice: Bobby Moynihan), Chloe (voice: Lake Bell), Gidget (voice: Jenny Slate), Norman, Tiberius (voice: Albert Brooks), Sweetpea, Buddy (voice: Hannibal Buress), 2016. © Universal /Courtesy Everett Collection
From left: Mel (voiced by Bobby Moynihan), Chloe (Lake Bell), Gidget (Jenny Slate), Norman, Tiberius (Albert Brooks), Sweetpea, Buddy (Hannibal Buress).

What starts off very fresh and fun loses its rhythm as the “pets in NYC” jokes begin to fade and the movie devolves into an animated chase film, with Max and Duke forced to work together to escape the clutches of motley gangs of stray cats, Animal Control, and the “Flushed Pets”—an underground (literally, they live in the sewer) organization of rejected animals, including an enormous viper, alligators, wolf-dogs and a tattooed pig, which are led in a revolt against humanity by Snowball (my favorite), a near-rabidly violent rabbit who provides a large portion of the film’s manic humor. Max’s friends—led by a hard-boiled, old basset hound in a wheelchair and a somewhat scary and conflicted hawk who constantly struggles not to eat the pets he has agreed to help—leave the safety of their homes to find Max and Duke.

Taking the number-one spot from another 3-D animated film, Pixar’s Finding Dory, in its first weekend, Pets made $103.17 million and broke the first-weekend box office record held by yet another Pixar film, 2015’s Oscar-winning Inside Out, which reeled in about $90 million in its opening weekend. Critical acclaim for Pets has been reserved, but audiences love it. Is its success all a matter of timing—with its summer release (usually a help) or lack of big competition (not the case, with DoryGhostbusters and The Legend of Tarzan)—or is it simply that Pets manages to hit a note that resonates amazingly well with audience members? I have to go with the latter.

Universal Pictures has released many relevant animated films in the past several years, like the eye-popping stop-motion features CoralineParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, from Laika Studios in partnership with Universal subsidiary Focus Entertainment. (If you haven’t seen Laika’s works, you should; they’re stunning, important films.) Universal also scored big with the aforementioned Despicable Me and its sequel and spin-offs. Unlike Disney, Warner Bros. and Pixar—in-house animation giants steeped in tradition—Universal has chosen to work with other animation studios or has purchased subsidiaries to release animated films. Still, it is an animation force to be reckoned with.

Pets, with its rather ordinary story line, shows how far a good premise and competent animation can take a film. People love their pets, and all the in-jokes and societal hallmarks of pet ownership are here: people who resemble their pets, odd couplings (like weight lifters with parakeets, designer-choice pets that go exactly with their owners’ taste and decor) and so on. We think a lot about how our pets view us, and The Secret Life of Pets capitalizes on this well. Not just for pet owners, either; animals lovers of all kinds will enjoy it too. Go see it, and then go home and hug your labradoodle or talk your landlord into letting you have one. If not, you could always get a fish.

Steve Rittler teaches animation at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, and William Paterson University, in Wayne, New Jersey.

Photos: Universal Pictures/Courtesy of Everett Collection