There is no such thing as a kids movie anymore. Those days ended around the time that Aladdin and his genie were bopping around a fake Agrabah on a magic carpet.
In the last 25 years or so, exclusively children-targeted programs have moved to Netflix, Cartoon Network or direct-to-video. Somebody in Hollywood wisely realized that if you want adults to spend $10, plus the cost of 3-D glasses, to take a bunch of Kool-Aid-infused 9-year-olds to a movie theater, the grown-up needs something to laugh at, too.
When it works, you get Toy Story or Finding Dory or Megamind. When it doesn’t work, you get The Secret Life of Pets, a jumbled, uneven action comedy that turns black protest and death into a joke and can’t figure out who it really wants to entertain.
The premise of The Secret Life of Pets is essentially Toy Story with dogs, cats and hamsters. What do our beloved animal best friends get themselves into all day when we’re off at work? Do they pine for us all day? Do they get into their own adventures?
The Secret Life of Pets revolves around Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), an enthusiastic dog whose life is turned upside down when his owner adopts Duke, a larger, goofier dog that bullies him and seeks to steal his position as the alpha best friend in the house.
As their rivalry reaches Jim and Dwight levels of ridiculousness, the story gets even more complicated. Duke and Max get lost, get captured by Animal Control, and are subsequently liberated by Snowball the Rabbit’s (voiced by Kevin Hart) Flushed Pets Revolutionary Army. They later get hunted by the Flushed Pets, and Duke and Max’s friends from the apartment building go out to find them. Then the whole thing descends into a kind of bizarre chaos with dancing hotdogs, Matrix references and an odd occasional hip-hop soundtrack.
What is probably most jarring in the movie is the sloppy black militant allegory of Snowball and his Flushed Pets movement in sewers of the city. Snowball, along with a pig (named Tattoo) and other animals, rescue Max and Duke from Animal Control. Going into full Kevin Hart mode, Snowball goes into a long political rift about how humans (i.e., “white people”) oppress animals. They use pets however they want, then flush them, or throw them away, once they’re done. The Flushed Pets’ rallying cry is “Revolution forever, domestication never.” And if there were any question about what cultural movement was being alluded to, the moment Snowball starts talking, Max and Duke begin “code-switching” into black vernacular to respond to him. It made me cringe.
To prove to Snowball that they aren’t “domesticated pets,” aka “sellouts,” Max and Duke agree to be initiated into the Flushed Pets by taking a snakebite on the butt. Because this is a comedy, Max is scared of the bite, knocks over some rocks and causes an avalanche, killing the snake. This is, of course, played for laughs because: Flushed Pets/black folk plus slapstick death equals comedy, but it changes the tone of the film.
The use of prevailing racial stereotypes or actual stories of oppression of people of color in cartoon animal movies and TV shows isn’t new. Disney’s Zootopia is a great look at racism and the war on drugs. Dreamwork’s Home is all about displacement of native peoples and gentrification. Even Shrek says something about the commodification of black folk’s labor.
Unfortunately, The Secret Life of Pets uses an allegory of black pain and suffering to further a storyline about white folks getting what they want. (Shout-out to Dr. Jackson Avery!) When Max and Duke get caught up in the system that usually protects them (Animal Control), it’s up to Snowball (people of color) to rescue them. Max’s incompetence leads to more death for “people of color,” but instead of eliciting sympathy, Snowball’s revenge on Max is a catalyst for the domesticated dog to learn how tough he is, and for his white girlfriend (literally, “Gigi the Pomeranian”) to assert her strength over the dregs and throwaways of the pet world in a huge Matrix-type animal fight on the Brooklyn Bridge.
The message is a little on the nose—a big, wet nose, but a nose, nonetheless—and in the end, Snowball’s quest for justice is ended when a little girl sees him, realizes that he’s a cute, fluffy bunny and takes him home to domesticate him. Thus, all of his anger is gone because finally someone realized, “He was one of the good ones.”
As a pure kids film, The Secret Life of Pets will be a commercial success. It’s got a lot of broad slapstick comedy and makes excellent use of 3-D filming for high-flying adventure. But as a multilevel classic, it really falls short. Louis C.K. is much too deadpan and detached for the viewer to believe that he’s a pet totally in love with his master (like, say, John Travolta in the underrated movie Bolt). And the movie can’t decide if it’s a Toy Story-esque subtle look at the world beyond our eyes (Hmmm, I could’ve sworn I left Buzz Lightyear on the counter this morning. Why is he on the couch when I get home?), a full-fledged anthropomorphic comedy where animals are driving school buses and dressing like human beings, or a social commentary that gets lost in a barrage of fart and poop jokes. It fails at all of them.
If you want to know about The Secret Life of Pets, it’s all around you, and it’s not so secret. White and middle-class-acceptable values are prioritized, and the struggles of regular people are for sport or entertainment. The pain or frustration of black folks must always take a backseat to white folks’ learning about themselves or getting what they want. As long as you dress it up with funny animals, the message is much easier to swallow. You may not need a dog whistle for this story; the message is pretty clear.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.