‘The Secret Life of Pets’ (2016), a story of unexpected friendship

by Kourtney Kawano | 7/14/16 5:59pm

In his penultimate film review for The Dartmouth, Andrew Kingsley ’16 explored Disney’s “Zootopia” (2016), praising its filmmakers for its clever combination of comedic characters and socially relevant messages. This week, I will return to the world of animation and the film industry’s strange love for anthropomorphizing with Illumination Entertainment’s “The Secret Life of Pets” (2016).

Described as the animal counterpart to “Toy Story” (1995), “Pets” is a wild take on the question millions of pet owners around the world have — what exactly does my pet do when I’m not home? While the film’s writers probably didn’t base its plot on actual footage of dogs throwing house parties or a parakeet pretending to be a fighter pilot, “Pets” makes a great attempt at imagining a world where our beloved animal friends form a community based on their loyalty to us.

The film focuses on the charmed life of Max (Louis C.K.), a terrier who spends his weekends touring New York City with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) and his weekdays waiting for her to come home, presumably from work. After years of life in the city, he’s filled Katie’s work hours befriending several of the other pets in the apartment, including Gidget (Jenny Slate), a cute but tough Pomeranian who has a secret crush on Max, and Chloe (Lake Bell), a cat who possesses sass and a bottomless appetite that rivals Garfield’s.

Max dreads the moment Katie leaves for work every day, but his life gets turned upside down when she brings home large, shaggy mongrel Duke (Eric Stonestreet), who’s more than eager to slip into Max and Katie’s picturesque world. Max quickly grows jealous of Duke, and after learning Duke will likely end up spending the rest of his life in the pound if Katie decides not to keep him, decides the only way to remain top dog is to trash the apartment and blame Duke.

This, of course, backfires on Max during a trip to a dog park when Duke decides to abandon him in an alleyway. A gang of stray cats under the leadership of Ozone (Steve Coogan), a downright creepy Sphynx cat, attacks the two dogs and steals their collars. Similar to “Bolt” (2008), animal control appears out of nowhere, grabs Max and Duke and prepares to take them back to the pound.

The film takes a hilarious turn when animal control runs into Snowball (Kevin Hart), a white rabbit who harbors a hatred for mankind after his magician owner abandoned him. Snowball and his team of misfit animals — nicknamed the Flushed Pets — rescue their captured ally, a grumpy bulldog, before deciding to rescue Max and Duke after they lie about despising humans, too.

Snowball leads the group deep into the depths of New York City’s sewers, which his cult has transformed into a hideout and sanctuary for all abandoned or mistreated animals. Realizing they’re greatly outnumbered, Max and Duke clumsily convince the Flushed Pets they murdered their owner, resulting in Snowball deciding to initiate them with the bite of a one-fanged viper.

Just as Max is about to get bitten, Ozone and his gang return and reveal Max and Duke’s real identity as pets. In their hasty escape, the duo accidentally kills the viper, causing Snowball to declare war on them for their betrayal. A chase results, and after being washed into the East River, Max and Duke catch a ride on a ferry to Brooklyn, where ­— like Woody and Buzz from “Toy Story” — they put their differences aside to get home. In the chaos of its multiple storylines, what ensues ­— in the span of one day it seems ­— is a family-friendly lesson about forgiveness, friendship and loyalty as well as an ode to the beauty of the city that never sleeps.

Although “Pets” does not possess the social complexity to rival “Zootopia” and its commentary on the current Black Lives Matter movement, it does live up to the message of its sister films “Despicable Me” (2010) and “Minions” (2015) ­— family comes in many forms and in the least likely of places. Initially resentful of Duke and the disorder he brings into his life, Max grows to care for and empathize with him as the story progresses. Though the audience is led to label Snowball as the antagonist, you can’t help but root for the lovable rabbit who would do anything to protect the forgotten animals.

Ultimately, at the heart of Chris Meledandri ’81’s latest production is a familiar and heartwarming comedy that children will find visually captivating and that adults will appreciate for its timeless themes.

Rating: 9/10

“The Secret Life of Pets” will be playing at the Nugget Theater at 2:00, 7:00 and 9:10 p.m. today and tomorrow.

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