Chris Renaud’s The Secret Life of Pets, the story of two pet dogs, Max (Louis C.K.) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet), who find themselves sucked into the dangerous world of the New York City streets, doesn’t lack for pedal-to-the-metal energy. Amusing throwaway gags abound: a lavish Busby Berkeley-like fantasy sequence involving dancing sausages singing the “We Go Together” number from Grease; a shrine for a dead duck named Ricky whose name carries legendary weight among a group of sewer-dwelling animal revolutionaries who call themselves Flushed Pets; and a dialogue exchange that pays out-of-nowhere tribute to the classic last two lines from Some Like It Hot (substitute its penultimate line with “I’m a cat” and you get the idea). Renaud tosses these bits of comic inspiration at a furious clip, and the messy pile-up can be exhilarating in the moment—the chaos of an id given free rein.
If only all of these disconnected ideas added up to more than the sum of its parts. The Secret Life of Pets’s high concept has a certain allure to it, offering a tantalizing peek at what house pets actually do and think once their owners leave them for the day. And most of the film’s sharpest jokes in that regard come in its first half, especially when Max—a former stray who considers himself “the luckiest dog in the world”—finds his place in his owner’s (Ellie Kemper) heart threatened when she brings Duke home one day.
The rivalry that develops between the two, in which both pooches try to assert their dominance, offers a persuasive comic slant on real-life territorial canine behavior. A similar wit underpins the anthropomorphic characterizations of some of the story’s other critters, like lazy fat cat Chloe (Lake Bell), who articulates the kind of aristocratic nonchalance that generally marks feline behavior; the easily distracted pug Mel (Bobby Moynihan), who seemingly goes after anything that moves; and Tiberius (Albert Brooks), a predatory falcon who oozes menace even at his most self-aware.
The promise of a comedy built on such clever human translations of animal behavior, however, soon dissipates as the film becomes an increasingly shrill and over-the-top adventure yarn, climaxing with this year’s second instance, after Pixar’s Finding Dory, of animals driving a truck. This might not matter so much if The Secret Life of Pets had the emotional weight to support its frantic action. But the initially antagonistic relationship between Max and Duke goes the predictable reconciliatory route, with Max developing more sympathy for Duke after the latter mournfully reveals his own origins as a stray who still regrets the way he accidentally abandoned his kindly owner.
And though some of the dramatic intrigue revolves around the heroic efforts of Gidget (Jenny Slate), a female Pomeranian with a crush on Max, to rescue the film’s two protagonists, her undying affection for him is never explained, coming off as merely an attempt to introduce dramatic stakes in a film too taken with momentary comic whims to commit to any thematic through lines, much less pathos. By the end, The Secret Life of Pets is so lacking in emotional payoff that one can’t help but regret that the filmmakers didn’t aim higher with such a golden premise than fleeting comic diversions.