The Secret Life of Pets. 2016. Illumination. Directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney. Japan and USA. Review by Pete Porter.
The Secret Life of Pets suggests that nonhuman companions lead richer lives than humans might imagine, but in an absurd way that champions domestication and appreciation over a radical “screw-loose” voice that cries out for animal liberation. Secret Life dramatizes an intense adventure where nonhuman companion animals experience equivocal freedom in a city-as-jungle setting that shows them how the other half, i.e. formerly domesticated animals, lives. Shown the wildness of the Underbelly, the home of “the flushed pets,” as the formerly domesticated animals call themselves, two recently untethered dogs find it a far less attractive prison than the domesticity to which they ultimately return.
Secret Life opens with a brief Welcome to New York City introduction that becomes the story of “Katie and Me” as told by Max, a small neutral breed dog. Katie adopted him from a sidewalk box labeled “Free Puppies” and they have been in love ever since, at least as Max sees it. The low point in Max’s day occurs when Katie departs, leaving him momentarily alone and sad. The melancholy is temporary, however, as Secret Life, moves to a catalog of the neighborhood animals and how they spend their days: a dog who concusses himself by vaulting into a window when he attempts to reach a squirrel outside, a cat who rejects her kibble to gorge on a whole roasted chicken, a Daschund who massages himself with a stand mixer, and so forth. All of these behaviors, some marginally neurotic and all played for laughs, combine to suggest a human fantasy of how these domesticated animals left to their own devices have enormous freedom of activity and movement. A Guinea Pig searches the ducts for his apartment, a parakeet easily exits his cage, and Gidget the neighbor dog asks Max about his plans for the day, as if he has any choice in the matter, which he does in the logic of the film. Humorously, despite the unlimited freedom of this world, Max plans to do what a non-animated dog would do in normal circumstances: wait for his human to return home. The trouble starts in earnest when she does, with an enormous brown shaggy dog in tow. This is Duke, his new “brother,” which Katie explains to Max with some awkwardness, adding that Duke had no home. Things start badly for the reluctant Max when his pleas to expel Duke sound like mere barks to Katie, who also fails to notice when Duke overpowers Max, eats his food, displaces him from his bed, and takes his blanket. This proves only an initial deprivation of creature comforts for Max.
Max and Duke work to displace and dominate each other, albeit briefly, before encountering common enemies: an enormous gang of street cats, animal control, and the flushed pets, led by a discarded magician’s bunny, named Snowball, in an oblique reference to the cautionary satire Animal Farm (1946). “Liberated Forever, Domesticated Never” shouts Snowball as he nibbles his carrot into a key that opens their cages. Max and Duke plead their case to go with him but he demurs, saying that they have “the stench of domestication” on them. We hate humans, they retort, claiming that they burned their collars (which the gang of cats took in the prior sequence). Duke goes further by saying that Max and he killed their owner (this turns out to be strangely, indirectly true as later plot reveals that Duke’s owner died shortly after Duke got lost). Snowball relents, shouting “Long live the revolution, suckers” as he leads them into the sewer. What seems like a throw-away line turns out to be fittingly poignant, but inaccurate: liberation is for anyone who is sucker enough to believe in it. So it is disappointing but not surprising that Secret Life of Pets gives voice to Animal Liberation only to reject it; Snowball is saying something about the “downfall of the human race,” when he melts into domestication as a girl cuddles him. To paraphrase, animals might say they want liberation, or they would if they could speak, but they don’t want it, not really. What they really want is the comfort offered by domesticity and companionship. Accordingly, every nonhuman character ultimately sacrifices freedom and their animal instincts for companionship, as a where-are-they-now summary shows each gleefully reunited with their human in the human domain. In the case of Max and Duke, their adventure bonds them together just in time for Katie to find the mess that Max made to persuade her to get rid of Duke. Only now, Max wishes Duke to remain part of the family. She sees the mess but dismisses it: Max and Duke have clearly bonded and that is what matters.
Above all, The Secret Life of Pets champions assimilation: to family, to domesticity, to expectations. To its credit, Secret Life does suggest that nonhumans lead richer lives than humans imagine. Ultimately, however, it returns its heroes to tranquil domesticity, complete with a newfound romantic partner for Max in Gidget, the neighbor dog who spends the film searching for him. We can at least be thankful that Secret Life withholds the scene of Max-Gidget puppies, which serves as the triumph of domestication in Lady and the Tramp (1958), thus minimizing the run of puppy purchases and subsequent abandonments. White bunnies, unhappily, might no be so lucky.
Lady and the Tramp. 1958. Walt Disney Pictures. Directed by Clyde Geronimo, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske. USA.
Orwell, George. 1946. Animal Farm. New York: Harcourt, Brace. Accessed August 24, 2016. http://www.george-orwell.org/Animal_Farm/0.html