Voices of: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Steve Coogan, Dana Carvey, Albert Brooks
Directors: Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney
Somewhere along their lengthy escape from a disgruntled, vengeful band of refused pets, our protagonists Max (a terrier) and his roommate (Duke, a giant stray) stumble upon a giant sausage-production plant in some corner of New York City — naturally, they are overjoyed. They are lost, on the run, hungry, and so the sausage plant represents to them an abundance and luxury they associate with the home they have left far behind. As soon as they enter, their faces are rendered to register the enormity of their ecstasy, and then suddenly, as if to allow this feeling to manifest visibly, the film erupts into a strange, macabre musical: the sausages all come alive, acquire human features and participate in coordinated choreography even as Max and Duke bite the heads off these new creatures, dismember them and swallow them whole.
The sequence is however not entirely unique within the film; its oddities, preference for violence and peculiar tone permeate through various, extended sequences in the rest of the film too, most of which exist as exercises of free-association writing, inherently digressive — a series of misadventures held together by the semblance of a narrative. Characters in the film are carried off by flying scavengers, fall from clotheslines hung a few stories high, tumble off the Brooklyn Bridge into the water below, swim through sewage and make a thrifty escape through manholes — a set of isolated accidents and thrills, made absurd by the lack of narrative context.
The film combines the tone of a Tom and Jerry cartoon (also, about pets who gain autonomy in the absence of their owners, also extremely violent) with the formlessness of a Baby’s Day Out or a Home Alone (both, very vicious and vengeful — about the former, Roger Ebert declared, “Cartoon violence looks good only in cartoons”). As with many films about children, The Secret Life of Pets begins too with the first contact with an alien emotion — in this case, jealousy. Max is the sole pet owned by Katie, and as such, accustomed to the privilege of exclusive space, care and company. Soon, however, Katie decides to adopt a giant mutt, a shaggy stray named Duke. Naturally, this incenses Max, who is perfectly bourgeois in his habits and values cleanliness and organisation above all else.
His time on the street has rendered Duke territorial, however, and he cannot let Max’s notions of private space or belongings go unchallenged. As a result, there is a turf war. Max soon discovers his capacity for vengeance and engineers various schemes by which to implicate Duke in the eyes of Katie and have him expelled from their house, but an accident leads both the dogs to be impounded by a van to be taken to a shelter and perhaps, be put down. They are rescued from this fate by the villain of the piece, a talking bunny named Snowball who nurtures within him the contempt for humans, since one of the race once threw him out of the house. He invites Max and Duke to register with his cult of murderous once-pets during a secret ceremony, but they blaspheme by killing the main convenor of the ceremony. Snowball and his team soon turn onto the pair of dogs and a chase ensues.
The greatest accomplishment of the film — as of say, a Baby’s Day Out — is their assimilation of the diverse landscapes of the city itself. It is still rare for an animation film, even if most of them prioritise habits of adventure, travel and discovery over others, to actually have its characters traverse through a metropolitan layout. In The Secret Life of Pets, for instance, characters move through low-income residential zones, dingy bylanes, sewer systems, the public park, an arrangement of rooftops, tract-housing setups, industrial districts and finally, underwater — as such, the film functions from a vantage point which is genuinely blue-collar, in that it rethinks the New York City not merely as a collection of icons (even if the skyline is visible throughout, but to symbolise the vastness of the characters’ mission) but as a set of lived, actual spaces.
Also admirable is the preclusion of grand, essential themes — while there are ultimately declarations of friendship, camaraderie, and even love — the characters are led largely by their impulses, selfishness and desire for self-preservation. These aren’t beings that are ideal, and that results in a film which features the tone of a sketch written by Louis C.K. himself, who voices Max — in that, while there is the search for a larger meaning, there is also an acknowledgement of how life can be, without reason, nasty, strange and arbitrary.
The writer is programmer, Lightcube Film Society...