A Doggo’s Love Conquers All: Why Films Like ‘The Secret Life Of Pets’ Will Never Get Old

There's a precise science to a good movie about pets.

No matter what a children’s animated film claims to be about, it’s essentially always a story of love and belonging. These are the perennial human questions. Where is home? And who welcomes and cherishes us there?

Set in an autumnal New York City, The Secret Life of Pets (directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney) is the latest film from Illumination Entertainment, the makers of Despicable Me and its despicable spinoff Minions. (Be warned: this film is accompanied by a Minions short so unfunny that, watching it, my face made an Easter Island statue look like Jim Carrey.)

It ostensibly explores what our pets do when we’re out — but most of those gags are in the first trailer. The film’s real agenda became clear to me in its closing minutes, as the owners return home to greet their pets. I cried like a burst pipe, tears rolling down my face in the dark. Amusing interspecies hijinks aside, pets are defined by their relationship to their owners. Their imagined interior worlds are small and focused on us, because we project our own emotions onto them, writ small and floofy.

The Eternal Optimism Of The Doge

It sounds hopelessly banal to say, “The secret life of pets is… love”, but what makes this simple, wholehearted film so appealing is that a dog’s love is simple and wholehearted. This is a story in which optimism always trumps cynicism; and there is nothing cynical about dogs.

Make no mistake: this is a dog film. Max (Louis CK) is hopelessly devoted to his owner, Katie (an under-used Ellie Kemper). He’s like Nipper, the model for the HMV logo. Max waits by Katie’s apartment door every day for her return, and is rudely shocked one day when Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a gigantic Newfoundland who promptly takes over Max’s space and — as Max is afraid — his place in Katie’s life.

Another kind of puppy love motivates Max’s pomeranian neighbour Gidget (Jenny Slate), whose own “very busy day” involves her epic crush on Max. The film never suggests this is an actual animal attraction; rather, Gidget has the same all-consuming devotion to Max that Max has to Katie.

When Duke opportunistically rids himself of Max while they’re being walked, Gidget’s the first to notice Max is missing, and she rallies her neighbours — who include Chloe the cat (Lake Bell), dachshund Buddy (Hannibal Buress), pug Mel (Bobby Moynihan) and basset hound Pops (Dana Carvey) — to bring him home.

Slate’s squeaky, husky vocal performance is one of the film’s chief delights, as is the unlikely ally she recruits to find Max: a wily hawk named Tiberius, voiced with endearing malevolence by Albert Brooks. There’s a wonderful fantasy sequence in which the new buddies transcend their predator/prey relationship to swoop through New York City.

To call The Secret Life of Pets safe and unoriginal, especially compared to the beautifully crafted social commentary of Zootopia, is to forget that what we love best about dogs is their domestication: their comforting familiarity. That said, this film’s emotional moments are cheaply purchased by comparison to Pixar’s forensically tearjerking Up, which The Secret Life of Pets strongly resembles. A subplot featuring Duke’s former owner feels as if it were carelessly pasted in from the earlier film.

(Almost) No Animals Were Harmed

Even through all this, The Secret Life of Pets cuts the treacle that can seep into anthropomorphic stories. Sometimes we get so carried away by our love for animals that we elevate their companionship and sentimentalise their suffering. Sometimes these stories are told from the animal’s perspective, in the spirit of Disney’s underrated Bolt in which a canine TV star makes his arduous way home only to realise the studio has replaced him with a lookalike or the devastating ‘When She Loved Me’ montage from Toy Story 2.

But sometimes, films depict an animal’s suffering purely to allow a human to express emotion. This is Marley and Me territory. And just you wait for next year’s relentlessly saccharine A Dog’s Purpose.

What saves The Secret Life of Pets from becoming too bland or maudlin is that the myopia of the pet-owner relationship is broken up by the animals’ sassy interactions with one another. It’s playful, even anarchic, in the same way classic Warner Bros shorts relished the comic mayhem between traditional animal antagonists (dogs versus cats, cats versus canaries, road runners versus coyotes) and mismatched critters (bunnies, pigs, ducks, skunks, mice, even Tasmanian devils).

Much of this energy comes from a militant rabbit named Snowball (a scene-stealing Kevin Hart) who heads a revolutionary front of rejected animals: the Flushed Pets. Snowball and his pig henchman Tattoo (Michael Beattie), along with alley cat Ozone (Steve Coogan), represent something dangerous and feral, and their enemies are the humans at Animal Control. “Liberated forever; domesticated never!” Snowball tells Max and Duke, who placate him by claiming to have “burned their collars”.

Whatever discomfort comes from the film’s jokes at the expense of activist movements, The Secret Life of Pets finds a sweet spot between edginess and cosiness. Katie finds Max in a box labelled “FREE PUPPIES”, yet there’s no talk of puppy farming. Duke was rescued from the pound, but Animal Control never threatens the grim possibilities of euthanasia. It doesn’t even seem lonely to spend all day in a small city apartment. The film’s only cruelty is separation from beloved owners; existential threats to the animals come from slapstick accidents.

Like Snowball himself, the film’s conceit is superficially cute and fluffy, but actually quite mordant in a screwball way that adult audiences can enjoy. “Every breath is a cliffhanger,” quips the aged, paralysed Pops. There’s another running joke that the nearly blind Pops takes a fancy to Chloe. “I’m a cat,” she replies acidly — to which Pops offers the wonderful final line from Some Like It Hot.

Worth the price of admission alone is a delirious fantasia scene where Max and Duke frolic in a hot dog factory where dancing wieners serenade them with ‘We Go Together’. This isn’t a grim production line, like the pie machine in Chicken Run. It’s a doggy utopia played with the glee of I Love Lucy’s famous chocolate scene.

The Secret Life of Pets is old-fashioned; it only seems modern because of its voice cast of comedians from indie film and hip TV. But that’s not a bad thing. Kids will enjoy it because its air of barely controlled chaos never tips into anything genuinely scary. Adults will enjoy it because, under the one-liners, it understands the emotional power of nostalgia: a return to a place where you know you are loved.

The Secret Life of Pets is in cinemas now.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk.