CINEPHILIA: An off-the-leash look at man’s best friend

While the human is away the cat will play, or just eat your roast chicken.

The Secret Life of Pets is easily distracted and prone to tangents, like a dog that suddenly chases after a ball.

Directed by Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud, The Secret Life of Pets imagines what your domesticated critters are doing while you’re away. The story centers on Max, an only pet whose owner rescues a stray dog, forcing the pampered terrier to share his space. When Max and his new roommate Duke get lost and picked up by an underground group of stray animals, they have to find their way back home before their owner returns from work.

What makes The Secret Life of Pets exceptional is also what makes it frustrating: it isn’t on a leash. Because there are no rules, there isn’t a rigid structure, and we leap between plot points with random occurrences rather than psychological motivations, which is in large part because most of the characters act purely on instinct.

When Max and Duke are threatened by a snake, a pile of bricks fall from the sky, then an entire wall. It’s something you might see in a Looney Tunes sketch, but within the confines of a feature-length film. The villain has motivations, but he quickly forgets them; there are character arcs, but they happen abruptly. The story is really just a framing device for a series of set pieces and funny situations. The Secret Life of Pets puts us in the manic headspace of an animal.

Thankfully, the film is committed to its comic ideas if not its thematic ones. Visually, we see things through a pet’s point of view: skyscrapers, cars, and people appear as though they’ve been squished to be tall and skinny, which is what you could imagine seeing if you lived your life two feet off the ground. Tonally, the perspective is disjointed and upbeat, and there is a sort of slapstick logic to a lot of what happens.

The jokes are simple in structure: do the opposite of what’s expected. A fluffy bunny is evil, an old dog with wheels for back legs is wicked fast, and a posh poodle in a luxury apartment rocks out to heavy metal when his owner is away.

Authored by the studio behind Despicable Me, The Secret Life of Pets is high-energy with a short attention span. It indulges in its creator’s best and worst impulses: skillful comic timing and lazy humour. This is a unique, flawed, enjoyable, and exhausting film. Although it’s devoid of meaning or feeling, there exists a bombastic, free-running spirit inside. The Energizer Bunny would be jealous.