There are a precious few moments early in The Secret Life of Pets where it seems, against all odds, that it might turn out to be good. It comes after the film has already accumulated more than enough strikes that, in retrospect, a critic seeking to preserve their life’s precious minutes might have considered walking out and writing a review based only on those opening awfuls – whether it’s a starting short that features Minions, or an opening sequence that includes swooping flyovers of an animated Manhattan set to Taylor Swift’s atrocious “Welcome To New York,” complete with voiceovers from our puptagonist Max (Louis C.K.) about how New York City is a good place. Had I taken leave of the film at this point, I would’ve written a scathing take about the pillars of cynicism and idiocy upon which The Secret Life of Pets was built. Having stayed for the whole thing, I can say that that review would’ve been far too kind.
Max lives with Katie (Ellie Kemper) in a Manhattan walk-up where the monthly rent is probably higher than the median household income in the United States, so, you know, super relatable! He lives in a neighborhood with many other adorable animals, also voiced by celebrities, whose voices are surprisingly deficient in personality. All their lives are pampered and good – until Ellie brings home a new dog, Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Instantly rivals, their competition for Ellie’s affections leads them to accidentally escape the dog park. Dreadful, predictable antics ensue.
It’s genuinely hard to predict what children will like. Even though The Secret Life of Pets is poorly-plotted and largely filled with jokes and references only adults will understand, it’s quite possible that many children will nonetheless find its many animal characters amusing. Frankly, it’s likely the case that a critical mass of children will, sponge-like, gleefully absorb anything you put in front of them in cartoon garb, putting a special onus on the makers of children’s films to carefully consider what they feed to impressionable minds. That’s what makes The Secret Life of Pets, which as a film for adults would be merely depressing, actively repulsive. Consider the character of Snowball (Kevin Hart), the film’s lead antagonist, a bunny leading a revolutionary anti-human movement out of the sewers. See in him the same kind of reactionary politics embraced by The Dark Knight Rises, which seeks to defang potent radical critiques of a broken system by reducing them to the outgrowth of purely-personal jealousy and resentment. Add to that context the choice to give Snowball’s an obviously black voice, and The Secret Life of Pets isn’t just bad; it’s toxic.
The Secret Life of Pets is so clearly a money-machine that it’s almost painful to watch. Every character is sketched in just enough detail to justify the inevitable merchandising; every closed plot loop left just open enough to produce one sequel after another, presuming enough desperate parents buy tickets and DVDs and action figures. It plays our sentimental attachment to companion animals against us, manipulating parent and child alike. The most bizarre and yet telling scene is the one that takes place in a sausage factory. In the midst of a film whose cash-hungry gears are so thinly and half-heartedly masked, the non sequitur vision of a hyper-sanitized sausage factory in which none of the sausage-works are exposed feels almost like an insult – making it the perfect encapsulation of the film that contains it.