By Ben Croll
How’s this for a shock: it turns out this summer’s biggest, wildest action flick is… about talking dogs. Stranger things have happened, but there it is. “The Secret Life of Pets” moves like a bat out of hell from frame one, though if you’re looking for any kind of emotion you might be barking up the wrong tree.
Comparisons to “Toy Story” will no doubt abound, not least because both films ask the same basic question –what do our playthings do when we’re not around to see them? — with the same winking glee. What’s more, both “The Secret Life of Pets” and the first entry in Pixar’s soon to be four strong franchise are animated by a shared basic tension. Both films are built on a rivalry between a king-in-his-castle prodigal son and a new interloper, a seeming competitor for top-gun number-one status in the master’s eye.
That top dog is Max, a boisterous terrier voiced by Louis C.K, who gives a family clean, high-energy riff on his scrappy everyman (err, dog) persona. Max lives in Manhattan’s most pet friendly apartment building with owner Katie (Ellie Kemper, chirpy but barely used) and horde of neighboring domesticated beasts. There’s Mel the pug (Bobby Moynihan), Chloe the tabby cat (Lake Bell) and Gidget (Jenny Slate), the eskimo dog with feelings for our lead. We’re introduced to all of them –and many more—in a fast paced opening sequence. Filled with sight gags, stupid pet tricks, and set to an up tempo Alexandre Desplat score, it nimbly sets the scene, showing us what fun happens when the masters leave and the pets come out to play.
Of course, Max’s good times aren’t meant to last, and they come to a decisive halt the day owner Katie brings home Duke. The wooly mongrel, voiced by Eric Stonestreet, poses an immediate threat to Max’s status quo, and be it through expert editing or some larger alchemic bond, the two performers share a snappy antagonistic chemistry. But that snappy antagonism, and the escalating feud it boosts, soon lands our two canine leads lost in the streets of New York, collars gone and Animal Control nipping at their paws. At this point, barely 15 minutes in, the already fleet-footed story kicks into overdrive.
Directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney, aided by screenwriters Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, pile on situation after situation, new character after new character. The Flushed Pets – a band of sewer dwelling revolutionaries led by evil rabbit Kevin Hart – also join the chase. Meanwhile, Gidget, Mel and company assemble a team to bring them home, bringing into the fray too many comedians and character actors to mention (Albert Brooks, as an impulse-impaired hawk, is a standout). There are the requisite film homages and references (“The Fugitive” an obvious go to, “Some Like It Hot” less so) to keep the adults happy, and the parkour-performing wiener dog is just pure fun.
If it all sounds totally overstuffed, well, it totally is. And if the film’s breakneck pace keeps all those balls in the air without too much strain, it does so at the expense of character investment and emotional payoff. In that sense, in overdrive, those Pixar similarities are left in the dust. Hardly a throughline through the manic energy, that central tension between Max and Duke gets lost amid the comedy, chase sequences and action setpieces.
Which isn’t to say that any of those are poorly done. Quite the contrary, Renaud, Cheney and their Illumination animators work at peak technical expertise. Colors pop off the screen, the golden light of New York in autumn beckons in the background, the elaborate set-pieces are choreographed with maximum Rube Goldberg invention.
Only, with such quantity and velocity in action, the only thing you’re really left with — once you catch your breath and the credits roll — is a general appreciation of the way Renaud and company animate fur, or make the waves the Hudson roar to life. It may be technically impeccable, but it’s something less than a feeling.
“The Secret Life of Pets” opens in theaters on Friday, July 8.