The Secret Life of Pets is mostly about Max (voiced by Louis CK), a small dog completely devoted to his owner. Then one day, his owner brings home the much larger Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Max gets territorial, and makes plans to get rid of Duke. But while out in the dog park one day, Duke fights back and the two end up lost in the city. Max’s friends, led by the spunky Gidget (Jenny Slate) try to find them. Meanwhile, Max and Duke have to work together to fend off crazy cats, dogcatchers, and a militant group of flushed pets that live in the sewer.
The plot bears more than a passing resemblance to Toy Story. The whole premise might seem like a pet-centric version of Toy Story, but in the brief moments that the film actually shows the secret life of pets, there enough distinction that it feels like its own thing. The understanding that the pets have of the world and their relationship to their owners is its own thing, and the film gets a lot of laughs out of just having these animals express that understanding.
But then Duke arrives, and it really does become Toy Story. Max and Duke are Woody and Buzz. They fight and then they get lost together. They come to respect each other as they try to get back home. Instead of an evil neighbor with mutant toys, you’ve got a bunny leading a group of freaky militant pets who claim that they want to destroy all humans. The film really comes off as a pale imitation of the Pixar film. It just doesn’t compare favorably, especially when it attempts to reach for emotional heights.
The film is much more enjoyable when it isn’t so concerned with plot and is just delivering on the promise of the title. So much of this film becomes an extended chase scene, with the two main characters pursued by a variety of antagonists. And it all moves so quickly that there isn’t time to really explore the world of these animals. The film’s best jokes hover around the idea that these domesticated animals have their own hobbies and rituals and base desires. They’re just like us, except much cuter. That might not be profound, but it’s preferable to the film’s patched-together story.
The film does look good. Each of the characters is wonderfully designed, and the environments are pretty breathtaking at times. The movie’s conception of New York as a vast, overwhelming place is one of the best animated depictions of the city. The voice cast is pretty good, too. Louis CK is usually employed for his easy pathos, but his voice really does convey this dog’s eagerness to be loved. Eric Stonestreet also captures a certain canine quality to his character. Jenny Slate is terrific as Gidget, which is kind of frustrating because the character has nothing to her beyond liking Max.
The Secret Life of Pets isn’t bad at all, but it does itself no favors by standing so close to one of the great movies of its genre. The film is so much better when it stands on its own ideas, when it just studies the strange ways these animals interact with each other and their environments. It is actually a thrill to see the secret lives of these animals, the stuff that they do when no one is looking. The film, with its facsimile of the Toy Story plot, often gets too caught up in big antics to really show what those secrets are supposed to be.