The Secret Life of Pets Is Toy Story Without the Nuance

What do our pets do when we’re not at home? I don’t know about you, but this premise had me hooked the moment I saw the trailer for The Secret Life of Pets. As a pet owner, this is something I wonder about all the time. Are my dogs lonely? Are they trashing the place? Are they plotting my death? Are they inviting their dog friends over to play Xbox? It’s hilarious that there’s a movie that feels like I’m watching all of the weird pet fantasies I have in my head (Don’t act like you’ve never made up voices and personalities for your pets).

But here’s the thing—the people behind The Secret Life of Pets had a million different directions they could’ve taken this simple idea. Pet superheroes. Secret agent pets. Pets that dress up like humans and form a Rush cover band. So why did they just remake Toy Story?

Let’s break it down. Max (Louis C.K.) is a dog who lives with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). Whenever Katie leaves, Max and his pet friends—Gidget (Jenny Slate), Chloe (Lake Bell), Buddy (Hannibal Buress), Mel (Bobby Moynihan), Sweet Pea (Tara Strong), and Norman (Chris Renaud)—hang out. Everything’s good for Max until Katie brings home a new dog named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), who starts hogging Katie’s attention and taking over Max’s dominion. Max and Duke get lost after a fight, their friends try to find them, Duke has an existential crisis, and they have to find their way back to Katie. Yes, there’s the subplot with the “Flushed Pets” led by crazed rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart), so that’s different. But, hi, it’s Toy Story.

Duke meets Max in The Secret Life of Pets

There’s nothing wrong with following the Toy Story model. I mean, that movie is perfect in every way, and it grabs at the deep-seated fears we all have of getting older and being abandoned. But while The Secret Life of Pets imitates the structure well, it only dips its toes into the water, never fully diving into the meaning behind its story. Like there’s an obvious opportunity to tell the “feeling forgotten and unloved with the new baby” story, but instead, we get an odd-couple journey toward friendship.

The stories about getting over differences and becoming friends is a sweet story for kids, no doubt, but animated films have progressed so much that it feels like it’s behind the times. Look at Zootopia, one of this year’s most successful animated films. It managed to tackle the complicated issues of prejudice, race and gender equality, bullying, and how politicians stir up hate and fear to gain power.

If The Secret Life of Pets took the time to follow one of the many story opportunities it set up (because you can tell the writers tried to go deeper), it could’ve been better. Like the idea of the “Flushed Pets” and how some people treat animals as things they can throw out when they’re no longer interested in them or unable to take care of them. Tell me that wouldn’t be a great lesson for kids.

“Who cares! It’s just a fun movie for kids.” It is a fun movie, and I enjoyed it. What I’m saying is kids aren’t stupid. They like good stories. And the adults who take kids to see these movies (or adults like me who simply enjoy animated films) don’t want to watch the same tired plots and butt jokes (Looking at you, DreamWorks) over and over. I don’t think it’s asking a lot of animated films to be entertaining and complex, especially when we live in a world where movies like Inside OutBig Hero 6, and The LEGO Movie exist.

The Secret Life of Pets: B+

Listen to my review of The Secret Life of Pets on “Pat & JT in the Morning” here (at 46:27).

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