Pity the parakeet. In the pet food chain, it's a snack for the cat, who's in turn a chew toy for the dog, who is itself a banquet for the crazy neighbor's trained hawk — who'll also swoop up the guinea pig for dessert. And that's just nature. In the bright, wicked world of Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud's The Secret Life of Pets, the fiendish animators have crayoned unnatural enemies for dear lost mutts Max (Louis C.K.) and his oafish adopted brother Duke (Eric Stonestreet): a lizard, a tattooed pig, several turtles, ferrets, a giant viper, and a psychopathic bunny (Kevin Hart) who war-whoops "Death comes to Brooklyn!" as the pair of estranged housemates try to make it safely back to their Manhattan apartment.
Then there are the humans. Every animal flick comes with evil dogcatchers — cartoonists draw them as instinctively as basset hounds howl at the moon. But even we owners get a guilt trip. Poor Max whimpers every time his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper), walks by him without a head pat. She thrusts Duke into his life without noticing that the bigger dog, a Chewbacca on his knees, steals Max’s dog bowl and his bed. When Katie leaves for work, Max suffers like a poet with tuberculosis. At least the buddies in his building — harumphing cat Chloe (Lake Bell), pug Mel (Bobby Moynihan), dachshund Buddy (Hannibal Buress), and guinea pig Norman (Renaud) — stop by for a visit. Still, as the owner of a Maine Coon I've weed-whacked into a goofy lion cut, I gulped when Snowball the bunny, a former magician's assistant, bellows, "All of us have suffered at the hands of man!"
The Secret Life of Pets is the sour-candy version of last month's Finding Dory. Both track in epic animal adventures under the literal feet of human overlords, and both even grab the wheel for a truck-smashing climax that'll screw up traffic for hours. (What, no sympathy for the stars of Cars?) And both seem to hint at a turn toward the darker ’80s kids movies that deliciously tortured a generation. Take a fantasy sequence in which the dogs break into a sausage factory. Hot dogs dance the hula, and it's cute ... until Max chomps one in half and the wiener's severed legs keep grooving. That's balls — literally, depending on your hot dog recipe.
Where Dory was saccharine, Pets is anarchic. It's the difference between Mickey Mouse and Looney Tunes or The Muppets, where crazy creatures take aim at each other with cannons. That sense of play infects the animation, which favors fun over photo-realism. I'll endure losing the crystalline wonder of seeing every bot-drawn blade of fur for the joy of seeing Chloe, a blimp on ballerina feet, tuck herself into a too-small box. That's one of this dog-slobbery flick's rare concessions to cat lovers. Otherwise, felines lead merciless street gangs or, in a true insult, get confused for good-looking dogs. "I'm a cat," sneers Chloe at the near-sighted canine (Albert Brooks) who loves her curves. "Nobody's perfect," he shrugs, stealing a line from Some Like It Hot. Guess his owner rents a lot of classic movies.
I laughed myself silly at The Secret Life of Pets. I had no choice. There's a metalhead standard poodle, my two passions coming together at last. It's enough to make you forgive the opening Minions gardening short, an ode to leaf blowers and dog poop. Almost. (Where in the food chain are Minions? Can we please bump them lower?) I respect Pets’s morbid touches: a couple of gruesome deaths, a chilling underwater scene straight out of Casino Royale, and the pig scarred with ink from the butcher shop, including the word "bacon" carved into his neck. No wonder Max fits in by fibbing that he killed Katie with a blender. Yet, ultimately, the film makes peace between beast and man. The humans come home. The food bowls get filled. The soundtrack gives everyone a musical hug. And we head home to our own pets, assuring ourselves that they love living with us, too. Um, right, guys?