REVIEW: Is 'The Secret Life Of Pets' OK for small kids? (And is it as good as 'Despicable Me'?)

by Michael Foust, Guest Reviewer |

CHICAGO (Christian Examiner) – Most of us have fond memories of a favorite childhood pet – the cat or dog that perked up when we got home each afternoon, playing with us until bedtime and protecting us throughout the night.

Of course, our pets had lots of free time when we were gone for the day, but we just assumed they were behaving themselves ... right?

Well, apparently not – at least not in the new film The Secret Life Of Pets (PG), which is out in theaters this weekend and follows the adventures of two dogs, a terrier named Max (Louis C.K.) and a huge mutt named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), as they and all the other pets seek to survive in New York City when their owners are off to work.

Max and Duke love their owner, Katie, but definitely don't care for one another. Duke is the new dog in the house, meaning that Max must share not only Katie's love but also his bed, food and toys. When Max attempts to frame Duke for tearing apart the apartment, Duke retaliates, and the two (through a series of events) end up in an animal control truck, and then in an "animal gang," and then on the street, without their IDs. In a city of 8 million people and countless other pets, will they ever be reunited with their loving owner?

The Secret Life of Pets was made by the same company (Illumination) that brought us Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2, and directed by the same person (Chris Renauld), too. The newest film isn't as good as those other two movies – nor as enjoyable as Finding Dory, which also is in theaters – but it still has its entertaining moments.

The Good

Warning: spoilers

Pets isn't perfect (see details below), but it largely avoids the trend of getting cheap laughs with scatological, potty-type humor (see: Angry Birds). That's always a positive sign for a kids' flick.

The bond between pets and their owners is a pleasure to watch. "Katie would do anything for me, and I'm her loyal protector," Max tells us, before adding, "There's only one problem. Every day ... she leaves."

Even though Max and Duke are enemies at the outset, they eventually become friends, and their teamwork is what helps them find Katie. Similarly, the film's villain, a small white rabbit named Snowball (Kevin Hart), turns good in the end.

Not surprisingly, the CGI animation is amazing, and the setting – New York during autumn – gives us lots of beautiful scenes, with colorful trees set against tall skyscrapers.

It's not the funniest kids' movie I've seen this year, but I did laugh out loud several times, and I'm certain pet owners will find this one quite fun.

The Bad

Snowball leads a gang of abandoned animals called "The Flushed Pets," and their home is under the streets, in the sewer. So far so good, but one of the film's lower moments takes place when Max and Duke – as part of an attempt to get out of a cage – tell Snowball that they killed their owner. (They hadn't.) Impressed, Snowball frees them, and then asks them to tell the rest of the gang all the details about what happened. (The words "kill" or "killed" are used several more times, and one story involves Max and Duke using a blender to do the deed.) Snowball says at one point: "These guys are owner killers!"

Snowball also pressures Max and Duke into an initiation in front of the gang that includes getting bit by a huge viper snake (an underground scene that might be scary for little ones).

Lessons for Families

Pets has several positive lessons for parents to discuss after the movie, led by the tug-of-war friendship between Max and Duke. Their fighting is what gets them captured by animal control, and their coming together, at the end, is what saves them. At various times, they sacrifice for one another.

Snowball spends much of the film wanting to kill Max, but eventually forces with him – a nice lesson that no one is ever too bad to turn good (tie this in with Christianity, and you've got a really good lesson). Snowball also is involved in a sweet scene in the film's final minutes, when a little girl picks him up – and his mean face disappears.

Of course, there's the obvious discussion about pets and animal shelters. Duke came from such a shelter, and kids may walk out of the theater wanting to rescue a pet, too.

Finally, there's a nice (theological) lesson about our enjoyment of pets. We don't know if our pets will be in heaven, but the Bible seems to indicate that animals will be there. I even tell my kids that dinosaurs likely will be in heaven. Imagine having one of those for a pet.

The Verdict: OK for Small Kids?

Every kids' film these days has its small problems, and parents might want to be extra-attentive to their children during the scenes involving the "Flushed Pets" gang. Pets isn't as kid-friendly as Finding Dory, but I think most families would consider The Secret Life of Pets acceptable for small children.

Entertainment rating: 3.5 out of 5. Family-friendly rating: 4 out of 5.

The Secret Life Of Pets is rated PG for action and some rude humor.

Language: None. Two oh my goshes (although it can be difficult to tell an "sh" from a "d.") We also hear "shove it," "idiots" and "stupid."

Sexuality: None. In the closing minutes we hear one dog say that a female dog loves Max.

Violence: Minimal, although there is lots of chasing and threats of violence (the word "kill" is used.) There also are several instances of bullying.

Michael Foust has covered films for more than a decade. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelFoust