Secret Life of Pets balances the grandiose aspects of a Pixar world with the refreshingly simple absurdity of an old Looney Tunes short.
Secret Life of Pets follows Max & Duke, two dogs that end up on an unintentional day out in the city of New York. As they struggle to return home they have to dodge cars, dog catchers, and a psychopathic wittle bunny wabbit, who’s hell bent on destroying humanity, one pet owner at a time. Also, Max’s friends band together with some unlikely strangers to try and rescue him.
In terms of humour, Secret Life of Pets walks the line between Pixar concepts and Chuck Jones absurdity; it’s equally Nemo and Bugs Bunny. The characters are developed past the point of speech impediments, but the developers don’t take themselves too seriously. They allow for a nice sprinkling of absurdity throughout. For instance, the only death in the film is the definition of overkill—I laughed my ass off. A good number of the jokes run off the old Chuck Jones formula of “Assumption/Reality,” which is explained beautifully by Tom from Every Frame a Painting in his video on Chuck Jones.
To provide an example of what I mean, when Max goes missing, his friends band together to find him, and end up seeking out the help of a wise old dog name “Pops.” The near blind paralyzed pooch asks the group to follow him as he steps off the roof of his apartment complex with absolute confidence. The group assumes he’s dead. The reality is that he’s on a window washer’s ledge. The homage runs deep into the physicality of the characters. Soon after the plank walk, Pops proceeds to lead the animals through New York on an increasingly ludicrous path through construction sites, across steel girders, from rooftop to rooftop, a la Bugs Bunny in the short, Homeless Hare.
Along with this, comes the free flowing visuals of Secret Life of Pets, which takes advantage of the fact that the creators could place the “Camera” anywhere. From the vibrant and fluid opening shot of New York, the director immediately establishes the epic size of the adventure that the heroes are about to embark on. These shots flow without ever becoming dizzying. The creators take advantage of new technologies while making callbacks to the inherently comical history of cartoons. This aspect alone, puts Secret Life of Pets ahead of Zootopia and Finding Dory which both feel stale in comparison.
The characters are by no means deep, but the energy of each actor keeps the audience engaged throughout. Albert Brooks felt tired voicing Nemo in Pixar’s recent sequel, but here, he sounds lively, and invested in the murderous Bird of Prey Character, Tiberius. I’m sure that the voice actors each recorded their bits alone in a studio, at least it looks like it from this B-roll video, but the actors felt like they had chemistry together. It felt like actual exchanges rather than sound clips edited together to form a conversation. This added to the comical flow of the movie and the constant dry wit back and forth between the protagonists Max (Louis C.K.) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet, Modern Family).
Much in the same way the animals balance across steel girders floating above New York, the creators of Secret Life of Pets walk the line between the animal aspect and the human aspect of each character. They found a nice balance between absurd physicality and grounded drama, between animal whims and human emotions, between Pixar and Warner Brothers, between flowing visuals and static shots… Really, the whole films an impressive and entertaining balancing act. And while I’m drawing attention to all these aspects now, after the fact, I was too caught up in the fun of the film to have any of this come to mind while watching it. I merely enjoyed the ride.