Great art has occasionally had the acuity to recognize that dogs are superior to humans. When Odysseus returned to Ithaca and disguised himself as a beggar, Argos recognized his owner even when his best friend, Eumaeus, couldn’t. White Fang saved a judge from a murderous criminal. Eddie the Jack Russell was indisputably the least irritating character on Frasier.
The Secret Life of Pets is by no means great art, but what saves it from being a hugely predictable Toy Story ripoff/monomyth-by-numbers is simply the fact that it has dogs. A wiry, complacent dog named Max. A big, schlubby, emotionally inconsistent dog named Duke who looks a bit like a Snuffleupagus. A snow-white cotton ball of a dog named Gidget who has attachment issues. It has cats, too, and a moronic guinea pig, and a homicidal bunny, and a carnivorous hawk, and a pig with tattoos, but the primary reason for the movie’s appeal is its ability to comprehend the bizarre fidelity of dogs to their humans. Pets isn’t exactly faith-in-humanity restoring in the manner of Wall-E or Inside Out, but at the end of a week in which mankind has illustrated some of its most dismal traits, there’s something quietly therapeutic about spending 90 minutes with some nutty, heroic furballs on a hero’s journey with very low stakes.
Promos for the movie have sold it as imagining an alternate reality wherein animals get up to zany hijinks while their owners are at work. Approximately everything funny about this scenario has already been included in the trailer—the poodle who switches the music from Mozart to death metal when his owner goes out, the dachshund who uses the KitchenAid to scratch his belly. So the onus is mostly on Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) to carry the movie by doing an excellent impression of a good dog, and having an adventure. He’s helped by Gidget (voiced with asthmatic brilliance by Jenny Slate), who’s in love with Max for no reason other than that she sees him through the window sometimes and he seems like a good dog.
Pets is the latest animated feature from the director Chris Renaud and Illumination Entertainment, the animation production company that made Despicable Me, Despicable Me 2, and their despicable spinoff, Minions. But it seems to owe a greater debt to Pixar’s Up, which produced the best portrayal of an anthropomorphized dog to date in Dug, a dopey Golden Retriever who runs up to humans and declares, “I have just met you and I love you.” Max waits faithfully by the door when his human (Ellie Kemper) leaves, and fixates on a small green ball. His blissful existence in captivity is complicated only when Duke lures him away from the dog walker and the two get picked up by Animal Control, after which they’re broken out by a psychotic rabbit named Snowball (Kevin Hart), who wants to initiate them into his gang of Flushed Pets (all the animals mythology and Gawker would have you imagine live in New York City sewers).
The visuals throughout The Secret Life of Pets are gorgeously imaginative: One of the weirder scenes is an elaborate fantasia in which Max and Duke break into a sausage factory and hallucinate dancing wieners that sing “We Go Together” at a fairground while blissfully submitting to being devoured. There are intriguing tensions in the subtext that the movie does its absolute best not to explore. (Is it better to be a free pet or a pet in fealty to humans? Does human love make up for being trapped in a 600 square-foot apartment for 22 hours a day?) Mostly, though, it’s about loyal, idiotic, optimistic dogs and their redemptive love for humankind. This by itself—even without the lengthy celebrity lineup and the sophisticated visuals and the recurring gags about cats being the worst thing ever—justifies its existence. As Charles de Gaulle once summarized, “The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs.” Or as Max might put it, “Ball!”