Title The Secret Life of Pets
Dir. Yarrow Cheney, Chris Renaud
Screenwriter Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch
Distributor Universal Pictures
Featuring Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart
The Secret Life of Pets is a fun film for kids, premised on the same ideas which provided the basis for Toy Story: it shows the audience what their pets get up to in New York City when left at home alone all day.
Mischief, is the answer, as all animals—and even different breeds—have a variety of characteristics. Poodles are moshers; dachshunds are cunning escape artists; eagles are tricksters.
But how do they form their community? And how important is the city to that community?
When Eric Stonestreet’s Duke intrudes into Max’s (Louis C.K.) life, Max fears being ousted as his owner’s favourite. Duke comes to represent the bigger brother who bullies the smaller, trying to win brownie points with his human mum. This rivalry drives much of the story, and therefore becomes an important measure of the film’s values. Thus, although Max and Duke don't get on at the beginning, Duke shows his true colours as Max’s brother when he saves him midway through the film. The two of them live, as it were, happily ever after.
There are other families, though, each of which has its own space in the city. Max and Duke cohabit in an apartment; Pops (), an elderly dog with wheels in place of his rear legs, hosts parties at his apartment while his owner spends long weekends away. Thereby Pops becomes notional father to all and sundry.
Not to forget the sinister white rabbit, Snowball (Kevin Hart), and his un-owned radical peers: these animals live in the sewers and reject the idea of being pets at all. Yet they, too, are a family of sorts. Even in the hellish space beneath the streets, family and camaraderie flourishes. Snowball calls them his ‘underbelly brothers', and he’s dead right.
But the city in which all the characters live is a divisive one.
In terms of height, those who live high up are wealthier and live more luxurious lives. Those down on the street are the undesirables, living in dumpsters in back alleys—these spend their time avoiding the city’s animal pound grunts who want to trap and imprison them.
And, of course, those underground. The symbolism is clear: those underground are the revolutionaries trying to incite anarchy and a rejection of the colonial structures of ownership and slavery.
Moreover, the city has more natural divisions. The river becomes a border between Manhattan and Brooklyn, two boroughs that are made out to be as alien as East and West Berlin. For example, Duke originally lived in Brooklyn and, when this news is announced, Max is shocked. He doesn't know how to treat this alien invader.
Given these divisions, the city is much less hospitable than it appears.
City for dwelling
And yet, the city is still a home to each of these families.
Philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) called this feature of city-living ‘dwelling’. He begins his ideas by noting the importance of building bridges across rivers. In this, it would suggest that the fact that the two important boroughs here are joined by a bridge is a sign of dwelling, not division.
Moreover, as the film transitions from rooftops to sewers, between dumpsters and bridges, the audience sees a range of diverse cohabitants. Instead of these differences being mere divisions, they signify the city’s hospitality, and its welcoming of a variety of citizens. This New York in The Secret Life of Pets is the modern, cosmopolitan city in which all comers are welcome and, more importantly, can become members of different families.
As Pops says to the pets looking for Max when he disappears, ‘This is my city: I'll show you around’. More than that, to call it his, and to be able to show them round, proves it as his, and their, mutual home.
You might also like ...
- Read Martin Heidegger's Building, Dwelling, Thinking essay here.
- The history of transport over/under the Hudson River in New York.
- The Wikipedia page on cosmopolitanism.