It's no secret that, however madly you love your kids, taking them to kids' movies can be an act of monumental personal sacrifice. You check your watch and sneak glances at your email. Studios love to play the "something for grown-ups, too" card, but rare is the PG release that doesn't leave you fighting off the nods.
Well, The Secret Life of Pets is that rare achievement: an animated movie that entertains on so many levels, and at such a level of cockeyed brilliance, that it really is fun for the whole family. I don't think I checked my email even once. I know I didn't nod.
Directed by Chris Renaud (the Despicable Me series) with an assist from protégé Yarrow Cheney, this is essentially Toy Story with tails. Instead of playthings, household dogs, cats, birds, you name it, come to anthropomorphic life the moment the homeowners turn their backs.
The cast is a pedigreed assemblage that features Louis CK as the voice of Max, a rescue terrier taken in by a young New Yorker named Katie (Ellie Kemper). He's the Woody of this version. The two clearly have bonded over the years. His idea of a great day is staring at the apartment door until she returns from work.
One day, Katie returns with an unwelcome surprise: a mammoth brown mutt she introduces as Duke (Eric Stonestreet). He's our Buzz. As soon as Katie hits the hay, the fur begins to fly. Woofs are replaced with words, and the illusion of contented canine coexistence gives way to all-too-human antics. Max attempts to maintain his alpha status while Duke throws his weight around, even displacing the poor pup from his personal doggie bed.
This rivalry soon takes a back seat to bigger problems when Max winds up missing in the city (with a little help from Duke), after a dog walker fails to notice he's one leash light. Luckily, his absence is detected by Gidget (Jenny Slate), the Pomeranian next door who's secretly mad about Max. She quickly puts together a rescue party.
Joining her are neighborhood fat cat Chloe (Lake Bell), a not particularly bright pug named Mel (Bobby Moynihan), Buddy the dachshund (Hannibal Buress), Sweetpea the budgie (Tara Strong), and a hawk called Tiberius (Albert Brooks, who just keeps getting better). Together they leave the safety of home in search of their friend. What they find is peril, violence and, most frightening, pure psychotic fury in the form of a little white bunny called Snowball.
He's a crazy, amazingly funny creation brought brilliantly to life by Kevin Hart. It's possibly the finest work of the comic's career to date. Snowball is the motor-mouth boss of a sewer-dwelling gang known as the Flushed Pets. Imagine a Guy Ritchie movie in which the criminals are feral cats with Cockney accents, vipers, giant crocodiles and abandoned sea monkeys ("We can't help it if we don't look like the ad!"). That's evidently what screenwriters Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch did. To my knowledge, there's never been a children's film with anything remotely this surreal.
The creators of Secret Life make all the right any-age moves, from the madcap jazz score by Alexandre Desplat to the gleaming skyline conjured by Illumination Entertainment's CGI team to the bizarro laughs. It's nonstop fun, pure genius and the closest any studio has come to winning a dogfight with Pixar.
Children's films don't get a whole lot hairier or more hilarious than this. Take my word for it: You will not check your watch.