I think it was George Carlin who asked, ‘What do dogs do on their day off? They can’t lay around and bark — that’s their job.’
A similar question is raised in the animated feature The Secret Life of Pets: What, exactly, do dogs and cats and birds and other domesticated animals do when their human owners head out for the day? At first, the answer is exactly as might be expected: they do their job. Dogs lay around and bark, cats slink around, birds fly out of their cages and play video games, and so forth and so on.
Within 10-12 minutes, it seems that all the comic possibilities have been exhausted, but it’s only a setup: the filmmakers have devised a series of episodes that leads the pets outside of their domesticated settings and into all kinds of delightful episodes.
As a product of Illumination Entertainment, known for Despicable Me, its sequel Despicable Me 2, and its spin-off Minions, it’s to be expected that The Secret Life of Pets is designed for a young crowd, those under the age of 7 or so. For that demographic, the movie delivers splendidly, filled as it is with juvenile humor and occasional poop jokes.
Yet the movie is not overwhelmingly juvenile. It’s a well-crafted, well-honed feature that is structured as noted above, in a series of episodes that feature different backgrounds and different characters that hold the interest of young and old alike.
The narrative drive is supplied by a dog named Max (voiced by Louis C.K.). He waits by the door patiently for his kindly human owner Katie (Ellie Kemper), but his world is thrown into turmoil when she brings home another throwaday dog, named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). A far larger dog, Duke is inclined to take over the apartment the moment that Katie is out of sight, which enrages Max and soon leads to a fight between the two that leaves them both out in the cold when they fall under the control of unfriendly forces.
Those unfriendly forces on the animal side of things are led by Snowball, a cute cat with a villainous streak. Voiced by Kevin Hart, Snowball proves to be a formidable nemesis, even more so than the human animal control officers. But he is countered by a neighboring cat named Gidget (Jenny Slate), who has been nursing a crush on Max.
The disappearance of Max leads Gidget to take action and and round up other neighboring pets — a dog named Chloe (Lake Bell), dogs named Buddy and Max (Hannibal Buress and Bobby Moynihan) and a ferocious hawk named Tiberius (Albert Brooks) — to come to Max’s rescue.
One of the pleasures of the film for adults is that the voices are provided by people whose voices sound distinctive from one another and seem to fit the animal that they are voicing. That makes it easier to distinguish their animal characters and adds to the comedy.
Bright, cheerful and funny, The Secret Life of Pets is a delightful, all-ages experience that is light on its toes and all the better for it.
The film opens wide in theaters throughout Dallas on Friday, July 8.