You know that fridge magnet that says, “You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps!”? Well you don’t have to love animals to enjoy The Secret Life of Pets, but it will help.
The film is a mix of humour, realistic animal behaviour, and complete flights of fancy – much as you might expect of an animated film about what our pets get up to when we’re not around. It’s a family-friendly film that will definitely appeal to children, but will keep the adults entertained too, and the audience certainly responded and laughed enthusiastically in the cinema where we watched it.
The story opens with the backstory of Max, the main character. Max is a charming dog, a small terrier, whom his owner, Katie, plucks from a cardboard box on the pavement, where he is the last puppy left in a box labelled “free puppies”. Thus he was lucky enough to get a home with a loving owner – something not all pets are lucky enough to get, as the film points out.
Max grows, as does his bond with Katie, and all seems rosy in Max’s world. True, he is home alone in the daytime, when Katie is out at work, but Max is lucky again, in that he has wide network of friends. This where you suspend disbelief and let the narrative take you into the world of home alone pets, and how they wile away the hours they have to pass without human company, because his network of friends consists of dogs, cats, a bird and even a Guinea pig, who employ various ruses to escape their owners’ apartments and meet up to have fun.
But Max’s fun comes to an abrupt end with the arrival of Duke, a rescue dog Katie brings home one night. Max is small and sleek, Duke is huge and shaggy. The two dogs take an instant dislike to each other, and again you must suspend disbelief (although this time for a different reason), because would anybody really be silly enough to bring home a new dog, leave that new dog alone with the dog they already have unsupervised overnight, then go off to work for several hours, once more leaving the dogs unsupervised with the free run of the house?
Well, fortunately from the point of view of the plot, Katie does just that, and that is where the action of the film gets going, with Max and Duke – still antagonistic towards each other – going on an adventure from Manhattan to Brooklyn, taking in fun, dangers and plenty of other animals. For me, one of the film’s strengths is that it doesn’t sugar coat things; it doesn’t shy away from some of the unpleasant things that can happen to animals. That said, it does it with a light touch, and will not upset children, though it might hopefully spark off some useful trains of thought and conversations.
Some of the cat and dog behaviours depicted will have you pointing at the screen, nudging your neighbour and telling them that your pet does exactly that. I like the inclusive nature of the film, that even the bond you can develop with a goldfish or a tortoise gets a mention. Produced by Illumination Entertainment, the film features some familiar faces, though you’ll obviously only hear their voices, such as Eric Stonestreet, Dana Carvey, and Steve Coogan.
Whatever your pet does get up to when you’re out of the house, it’s probably not going to be getting lost in New York, but The Secret Life of Pets may give you food for thought about what they do get up to, and if it inspires owners to provide enrichment for their pets during unsupervised hours, that can only be a good thing. This film does capture the spirit of our companion animals, how strong the bond we have with them can be, and how sad it can be when that breaks down. Ultimately, the love that exists between us and our animals is what transforms lives for the better – ours and theirs – and The Secret Life of Pets knows and celebrates this.