Voice actor casting can make or break a movie. In The Secret Life of Pets, it was a huge distraction for me. The voice behind central dog Max is Louis C.K., renowned comedian and professional sardonic jerk. As a fan of his comedy, I could NOT get past the fact that the perpetually profane sad sack’s voice now belonged to a cute dog. It’s a walking contradiction too uncanny to ignore; too-
Sorry. You want to know how good the movie is overall, not how odd of a casting choice Louis C. K. is (not to say he isn’t talented, I look up to his writing and acting style immensely). Perhaps it’s not my fault for getting distracted though: The Secret Life of Pets is itself not much more than a fun distraction.
The comparisons to the Toy Story series are inevitable: Toy Story is about what your toys do when you’re out of sight, The Secret Life of Pets is about what your pets get up to when you’re out at work. This newer animated escapade won’t stand any tests of time though: it’s a largely forgettable adventure, and none of the pets convey anything close to a compelling character. Toy Story is a classic because of its layered-
Ok, the only image I can picture is Louis C. K. standing in a voice recording studio and delivering all of his lines straight-faced. There’s no way he enjoyed this kids’ fare, right?
Sorry again. Anyway, The Secret Life of Pets mainly utilizes two types of humor: the first of which I’ll call animal awareness. This is mistaking well-worn observations about animal behavior for actual jokes — “hey, dogs are obsessed with their owners while cats are indifferent! Ha! Pigs are fat, am I right?” This writing is lazy and rarely funny.
The second type of humor is the trademark of Illumination Entertainment, the production company behind this movie and the Despicable Me franchise: pure, unadulterated randomness.
The pets often find themselves victimized by or participating in situations that make absolutely no physical or logical sense. The Secret Life of Pets extracts a genuine sense of glee from this wackiness, especially when one-liners or running gags are involved. Some extended set pieces of randomness do tend to drag on though.
You know, I bet Louis C.K. wasn’t legitimately playing Max the dog. It must be a subversive comedy routine. He’s sarcastically mocking actors who collect paychecks by lending their voices to-
Sorry, sorry! That’s a serviceable tangent though. The voice cast is by and large full of talented performers, many of which are accomplished comedians. C. K., Lake Bell, Hannibal Buress, Jenny Slate, Bobby Moynihan, Steve Coogan — and that’s just a few in the grab bag of vocal talents. They imbue the film with witty subtleties that may not have been present in the screenplay. Even the frantic Kevin Hart fits well within the established tone.
Eventually the exact same predicaments keep befalling the pet brigade, and we never get a reason to care about any of these animals. None of them have character arcs, so when the stakes artificially rise, The Secret Life of Pets lacks any real sense of emotional attachment. This may seem like nitpicking for a kids’ movie, but keep masterpieces like Toy Story and Zootopia in mind: animated films can aim much higher.
And don’t get me started on the movie’s product placement. We get it Universal Studios, your commercialization of Minions proved terrifyingly successful — but that doesn’t mean you can start advertising your TV shows, songs, and other movies in your movies.
★★★ (3 out of 5)