We’ve all heard that old chestnut: When the cat’s away, the mice will play. But have you ever wondered what happens when you’re away? What mischief does your family’s furry friend get into when you lock the front door and set off for school or work?
Well, for the thankful tail-wagger Max and his fellow apartment-bound pet pals, it turns out that what happens next is more action-filled than you might expect.
Not every day, of course. Some days are pretty mundane. Max can spend eight straight hours staring at the door, for instance, waiting for his beloved and totally terrific owner, Katie, to return. In another nearby apartment, his feline friend Chloe might simply be trying to refrain from helping herself to whatever’s in the fridge—when she’s not lying lazily on an overstuffed pillow, that is. Then there’s the bulldog Mel, who spends his afternoons barking at squirrels that foolishly wander into the tree outside his apartment window.
But sometimes things get a little more intense.
A prime example is the day wonderful Katie brings home an oversized rescue dog dubbed Duke. Now, to Max’s awesome owner, that must have seemed like one more wonderfully loving thing to do. And Max will readily tell you that Katie’s exactly that kind of you-just-gotta-lick-her-face human.
But from Max’s perspective, bringing Duke home was also a disastrous wonderfully loving thing to do. After all, a New York City apartment can be a dog-eat-dog environment when you populate it with two contentious canines. And this Duke is just … well, Max doesn’t like to cuss, but he’s a bad dog. It’s as simple as that. He’s nothing but a mutt that’s doggone determined to make Max his next bowl of kibble.
The two dogs’ squabbling soon leads to a hike-up-their-hackles hassle that accidently lands them both out on the street without their dog collars or IDs. That disaster opens the kennel door for a fight with a gang of alley cats, getting snatched by Animal Control humans, then crossing paths with and being chased by an underground pet liberation army known as the Flushed Pets.
It’s enough to make you growl out loud.
Worst of all, if Max and Duke can’t find their way home before dark, fabulous and faithful Katie will be all alone. She won’t know where they are. She’ll be lonely and afraid and … petless.
And Max simply can’t bear the thought of that. So he has to dig his way out of his predicament, even if it means patching things up with his hateful hound of a nemesis and working with Duke to get back to wonderful Katie once again.
When Max and Duke go missing, a Pomeranian pup named Gidget rallies Max’s friends to set off in search for them. And though Chloe the cat tells Max at one point, “As your friend I’ve got to be honest with you: I don’t care about you or your problems,” even she comes along to help. The animals encounter many dangerous situations, but they push on to aid their friend.
Meanwhile, Max and Duke find common ground and a solid friendship. Max eventually welcomes Duke into his “family” with open paws.
Tiberius, a hungry hawk, suppresses his natural predatory instincts in the hope of finding friendship. It’s a strange, but appealing, new concept for him. And even though the Flushed Pets gang harbors deep antipathy toward humans—even talking about killing pets’ owners at one point, which obviously isn’t good—the movie shows how love can disarm such vengeful intentions. When the leader of the group, a hard-bitten former magician’s rabbit who goes by Snowball, is eventually offered a home by a little girl and her mom, he immediately hops at the chance: Snowball climbs up into the loving child’s arms, a changed bunny.
By the time the credits roll, The Secret Life of Pets also delivers a gentle reminder to humans to be wise about the choices we make when it comes to the pets we adopt.
Max questions the evolutionary theory that suggests dogs are descended from wolves.
Gidget has a crush on Max, thinking him hopelessly cute. And during a moment that could be interpreted as mildly suggestive, an older dog who’s nearly blind speaks of his appreciation for Chloe. She points out, “Dude, I’m a cat.” The old dog replies, “Nobody’s perfect.”
This rollicking pet adventure is filled with thumps and tumbles. Max gets pushed around and sat on by the much bigger Duke. Alley cats toss Max into the air, causing him to crash into heaps of garbage. He and his friends are pummeled and bounced around by the Flushed Pets in other chase scenes as well. When captured by that gang, Max and Duke lie and talk of killing their previous owner with a blender.
Gidget flies into ninja mode and beats up scores of animals to protect Max. When she first steps into Tiberius the hawk’s pen, she notices the bones of his previous victims scattered on the floor, and he lunges at her aggressively.
Slapstick animal violence occasionally spills chaotically into the human world, too. Members of the Flushed Pets fight with humans and twice hijack an Animal Control van, once crashing it in an alley and another time driving it off a bridge into the watery bay below. Humans involved in these encounters end up bruised and bandaged. Snowball also steals a commuter bus and uses it to bash a pathway through heavy traffic.
On the more serious side, the film’s sole apparent fatality occurs when a threatening, sharp-toothed viper is crushed beneath a large, crumbling brick structure.
Single exclamations of “oh my gosh,” “heck yes” and “shut up” are joined by a handful of obvious winks at verbal naughtiness such as “holy schnitzel” and a disgruntled “ah, pellet!”
Toilet humor is sprinkled throughout the movie’s script. When sniffing the sewer, for instance, one character says it smells like “poo poo with a dash of caca.” A squirrel taunts a dog by shaking its backside in the barker’s direction. Mel rubs his backside on carpet of his owner’s apartment. Snowball squirts rabbit pellets at an inopportune moment. Dogs sniff each other’s backsides in greeting, saying things such as, “Hey, how are you?” etc.
If you’ve ever ventured onto YouTube and noticed what’s trending at any given moment, you know that we humans have a tender spot for our pets. Videos of tumbling, bumbling furballs are everywhere. We anthropomorphize those adorable beasties. We gaze, giggle, guffaw and aww over them. And even the most stern I-don’t-want-some-mutt-messing-on-my-carpet type can’t help but melt when a precious pup raises his furry little paw for a handshake.
When you take that built-in sensitivity to pettable pets and infuse it into a rollicking story packed with quirky conversing critters, well, it’s a combination that can’t help but make you smile. Adults and kids alike will have their hearts tickled and tugged at here, like a pooch with a favorite chew toy.
Now, granted, there are several pellet-dropping, pee-in-a-plant moments of toilety humor that could have been flushed before the film’s final cut. There are a few times when the discarded and disillusioned Flushed Pets feel a bit too aggressive in their swarm-the-sewer-and-overthrow-humanity revenge fantasies.
But occasional toilet humor doesn’t ruin this good-hearted, pro-pet flick, one that also reminds us humans not to make hasty decisions or sidestep responsibilities when it comes to the animals we adopt. And the movie promotes that message while pointing out just how great a loving pet-and-owner bond can be.
In the end, The Secret Life of Pets kinda sorta makes you want to wag your tail, even if you aren’t a chitchatting kitty or a palavering pooch.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.