AT HOME — “The Secret Life of Pets” opens with a pretty fantastic series of questions.
As pet owners begin leaving their Manhattan apartments for the day, “The Secret Life of Pets” asks, then what? What do our favorite animal companions do with zero supervision? What if our pets understand our world better than we give them credit for? And what would internet life-hacks look like designed by cats, dogs, birds and goldfish?
Some of the answers writers Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch have come up with for these questions are genuinely funny, and provide for the best moments of “The Secret Life of Pets.” Unfortunately, these answers only account for roughly 10 minutes of screen time, leaving the creative team with an additional 88 minutes of movie to fill.
So how did Paul, Daurio and Lynch stretch 10 minutes of material into a feature-length film? And, is the final product worth the price of admission?
As always, let’s talk about the highlights.
Max the dog is living the pet dream. He’s found the perfect owner who brings him to her perfect home where he spends the quiet part of his day surrounded by the perfect friends. Things take a left turn, however, when Max’s owner brings home a new dog, Duke, threatening Max’s cozy existence.
When a less-than-innocent scheme goes awry, Max and Duke find themselves far away from the owner they love, and must learn to depend on each other to navigate the many perils of New York City.
Does this sound a bit like “Toy Story?” It should. The similarities are painfully, if not shamefully obvious. However, since “Pets” is hardly the first Hollywood film to rip of another story’s plot points, “Pets” at least gets credit for borrowing from one of the greats.
Usually I break these discussions down into the two or three aspects that influenced my experience most, but since “The Secret Life of Pets” almost feels like two different movies, things didn’t compartmentalize so nicely.
So let’s just have a general discussion about what did and did not work with “Pets.”
When it comes to observational comedy, “The Secret Life of Pets” is pretty brilliant. I’m not sure the world was waiting for an animated film just for pet lovers, but we now have one, and it’s one pet lovers will be pretty happy with. Not only do animators capture many of the subtle, physical mannerisms of the different animals represented in the film, but the writers did a pretty good job of keeping character motivations true to their animal kingdom stereotypes.
Also, many of the great punchlines of the film land because of the cast’s commitment to their animals. Louis C.K.’s opening lines immediately give you a sense for Max’s simplistic loyalty, while the self-centered, though ultimately good-natured Chloe comes across as lovable entirely because of Lake Bell’s behind-the-mic delivery.
“The Secret Life of Pets” feels like an idea writers weren’t given enough time to flesh out. As the opening scenes invite audiences into a really clever, and genuinely compelling behind-the-curtain look at domesticated animals, that buildup is kicked to the side once Duke is introduced into Max’s world. The characters themselves manage to maintain an overall commitment to their animal makeup, but all of the situational and familiar setups we get at the beginning of the story are quickly abandoned — replaced by a very generic animated animal adventure.
By the time Max and Duke are rescued by the toys under the bed — I mean, animals under the streets — it’s obvious “The Secret Life of Pets” has fallen asleep on autopilot.
There’s a lot to like when it comes to “The Secret Life of Pets.” Had it not hinted at a much better movie throughout the opening, I probably would’ve just said “Pets” was good fun and called it a day. However, the disconnect between its uniquely creative beginning and the assembly-line conclusion made the experience more frustrating than it needed to be.
In the end, “The Secret Life of Pets” will probably be remembered as a generic “Toy Story” knockoff, but as long as I love my Marshmallow Mateys, I’m not entirely prepared to call that a bad thing.
Follow Travis on Twitter @tspoppleton.