The Secret Life of Pets is a celebration of the human-pet bond by delightfully animating our pets' inner lives and their rock-solid devotion to us. Sure, our pups and kitties rely on us for food and shelter, but this new film proves that hugs, snuggles and kisses are equally important.
Most of us have memories of having that special pet as a kid. For me, it was Pinky the cat. Burly, white and woolly, with a rose-colored nose, Pinky was prone to fights with other cats, most likely over territory but possibly because his girlie name made him feel emasculated. Either way, my flea-bitten friend always greeted me with a meow and a head rub when I arrived home from grade school. I treasured that cat and knew in my bones that he loved me.
The Secret Life of Pets is all about that connection we as humans feel with our furry companions. Set in a bright and colorful New York City filled to the brim with lofty pink and blue skyscrapers, the movie shows us what really goes on when Manhattanites leave their adored pets to go off and earn their chow.
The story gets barking when bighearted human Katie (voiced by Ellie Kemper) surprises her Jack Russell terrier named Max (Louis C.K.) with an addition to the household: Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a giant, shaggy moppet of a dog she rescued from a shelter. Good-natured, with a tail that wags at a supersonic speed, Duke is like a toddler entering a china shop — unwieldy, unpredictable and demanding of your full attention or else.
At first Max isn’t happy with his new "brother," making the situation a perfect metaphor for a child who must adapt to a new sibling entering the home. There’s a period of disruption, frustration and even jealousy.
But once the two dogs are off on an adventure that includes other city-dwelling pets, like Chloe (Lake Bell), a joyously passive-aggressive cat, and Gidget (Jenny Slate), a fluffy Pomeranian who’s sweet on Max, the animals go into bonding mode, and the fun begins.
As I watched the film, I noticed that the 6-year-old boy sitting next to me was captivated by the playful pooches on screen but grew frightened when the pets joined up with an animal gang called the Flushed Pets.
Led by a raging rabbit called Snowball (Kevin Hart), these are the unwanted snakes, alligators and owner-less misfits living underground in the sewers. A potbellied pig named Tattoo (Michael Beattie) escaped a tattoo parlor where he was used for practice until every inch of his pink skin became tatted up. These hard-luck animals create a darker, shadow image of the animals we love, showing what can happen when animals aren't cared for properly by humans.
The Flushed Pets bring conflict to the story along with an element of danger, but they may be a little scary for toddlers.
There are also several references to death, and the Flushed Pets express their desire to kill humans, which doesn't seem like too big of a threat coming from a fluffy bunny, but it does seem like an odd desire to express in a kids' movie.
The recent film The BFG did feature child-eating giants, however, so it's easy to see why writers would want to add a real element of danger to these children's stories to ramp up the stakes. Just be aware ahead of time that younger kids may need a hand-hold during these scenes.
Luckily the screenplay is full of Pixar-esque jokes that play both on the child and adult level, though a few will go over the heads of younger kids, only to land squarely on even the most cynical of adults who are watching, causing lots of laughter.
The best scene in the film is at the end, when people all over New York come home to be lovingly reunited with their birds, kittens and gerbils. Set to the coolly blissful song "Lovely Day" by Bill Withers, I dare you to walk out of the theater without a tear in your eye.
The film is one hour and 31 minutes, with a fun extra scene about a minute and a half into the end credits.
Iffy for toddlers, but perfect for elementary school-age kids and above who love animals of all kinds.
One word of warning: If your child has been begging for a pet and you've said no, you may not be able to resist that doggy in the shelter window on the ride home after seeing this movie.
The Secret Life of Pets opens July 8.
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