Robotic alley cats? Universal’s ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ is old school and devastatingly cute
With 64 robotic animal figurines, ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ is a celebration of old-fashioned theme park storytelling, where atmosphere trumps the desire to re-enact a movie.
The pandemic-forced closure of Universal Studios Hollywood last year came just before the grand opening of the park’s long-anticipated 2020 addition — a ride inspired by the two films in “The Secret Life of Pets” franchise. But after a pause of more than a year, guests attending the park’s reopening this week will be able to get their paws, which will be squirted by Universal staff with hand sanitizer just before boarding, on the attraction.
What’s they’ll find in the Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash! is the kind of ride that is something of an endangered species in the theme park world. While there are plenty of clever uses of technology, this isn’t an attraction designed to thrill or emphasize spectacle. The Secret Life of Pets uses screens in complementary rather than starring roles, and when it comes to interactivity, the ride encourages playful silliness rather than more overt game-like techniques.
Essentially, the emphasis is largely on the joy of the emotional design of physical, built environments — a New York cityscape that comes alive with dogs doing yoga, dogs taking a spa day in a hot dog cart, cats swinging from roped blankets and one ill-advised scheme to use fireworks as aircraft.
The ride contains 64 robotic animal figurines and thus relies on old-school theme park philosophies. The focus is on animation-worthy vignettes rather than a strict beginning, middle and end to the ride. There’s an underlying narrative — you’re a pup up for adoption — but in just a few minutes the ride switches through multiple locales, from posh New York apartments to a cat-bullied alleyway to a pet wash and more. Guests are constantly looking around them, and often above them, to pick up on the screwball hijinks.
Although it’s based on a relatively recent franchise — Illumination Entertainment’s 2016 film “The Secret Life of Pets,” which is reported to have grossed more than $875 million worldwide — the tone throughout is one of frantic, exaggerated goofs that place guests in an old-fashioned cartoon. Think “Looney Tunes,” “Rocky & Bullwinkle” or the work of Tex Avery as much as any big-budget, modern CGI-animated film. Throughout the attraction we encounter a sly-looking cat with a Jerry Lee Lewis scowl wreaking havoc on a piano, a sad Dalmatian trying desperately to snare a bit of ice cream, a bunny trying to commandeer a drone and more.
If you’re a pet lover, it’s the only unconditional love you get
— Jon Corfino, Executive producer, Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash
In the New York apartments, we see glimpses of how pets mirror their owners — a woman cleans and dances with a dog while across the street, another, seemingly annoyed with the racket down below, shuts the drapes to hunker down with her assortment of sharp-eared, silhouetted cats.
While based on the film and featuring its characters, prior knowledge isn’t needed. This isn’t a “ride the movie” sort of experience so much as one that wants to give us weird, colorful scenarios to imagine our own storylines.
The underlying theme driving the experience is that of a human-animal bond, so much so that at two points the ride turns us into pups and even shows the excitement of meeting an adopted family. While so many cinema-based attractions in recent years have put an emphasis on re-creating movie scenes, often relying heavily on screens and projections, Secret Life of Pets focuses on animal personalities and companionship.
Pet owners should be able to relate to the sense of presence the ride creates, as those who share their homes with animals know that comfort comes in them simply being around — be it watching a dog sniff out new objects or taking a moment to listen to a cat purr. While our animals might not wear fireworks as hats or paw through cupcake trays meant for humans, the ride shows the power of tactile, theatrical worlds.
Like Disneyland’s dark rides in Fantasyland, which are clearly the lineage Secret Life of Pets is drawing on, the attraction gives us a stage on which to imagine ourselves rather than a world to view.
“I say this a little tongue-in-cheek, but if you’re a pet lover, it’s the only unconditional love you get,” says Jon Corfino, the creative director of Universal Creative, the arm of the company responsible for theme park experiences, and the executive producer on the Secret Life of Pets. “So you really want to see the physicality of it. You want to see that charm. This is all about the heartstrings, and it’s touching on that on a heartfelt level. The best way to do that was to work with a different set of tools, in this case a very physical set of tools.”
Almost everywhere you look there’s something to imagine a story around. There are pets playing in trash, pets struggling with construction equipment and a cat trapped in a weird, washing machine-like contraption. The darkened cat alley is especially cluttered with cats hanging, strutting or just plain trying to intimidate. The centerpiece of the room is a cat playing a piano, a rather impressive piece of theme park robotics in which the scrawny cat stalks the keys. The cat moves, the piano moves, and hidden from sight are the mechanisms or tracks propelling the feline along.
“That was pretty complex,” says Corfino, noting the piano and the pet are fully animated, right down to the way the cat eyes us. While the larger-than life dinosaurs of Universal’s Jurassic World ride certainly impress, the exact movements of such a tiny kitty may make this Universal’s most lifelike figure at its Hollywood park.
“That process followed traditional animation, in which you create animatics and figure out what unique movements can be important to this character. Doing that level of animation was something that was new to us. We spent a long time on that one.”
This ride, as well as Universal’s other Illumination properties (notably the “Despicable Me” universe) has given Universal the opportunity to more fully transform its upper lot. The New York that surrounds the Secret Life of Pets isn’t, of course, a setting on the grand scale of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but the way it feels both urban and animation-friendly is an achievement, designed here less as a movie set and more a New York that never was, one that exists the way we imagine it when told affecting, child-friendly stories.
“Obviously, it’s fictionalized New York,” Corfino says. Yet it was a challenge because a few steps away Universal has a a slightly more realistic New York as part of its backlot-inspired sets. Guests will likely be drawn to the balcony across from the ride, where one of the film’s characters will appear as a talking figurine, but there are plenty of other details scattered about. You could spend a significant amount of time reading classified ads, examining tabloid magazine covers or trying to get a peek into the apartment windows.
When Disneyland reopens the Haunted Mansion on April 30, some upgrades and additions will be familiar to students of Disney history. An one-eyed cat, anyone?
Most important, however, the ride gives Universal something it has lacked in its Hollywood park, which is a family-focused ride that doesn’t use screens or stomach-churning 3D effects or go for thrills. Here, we see how being in an environment filled with humor and silliness can allow us to dream up an assortment of stories. And in one scene, thanks to some motion-tracking technology, we’re able to lift up our hands and see them reflected back as paws as we fully transform into dogs.
Fans who miss old-fashioned theme park rides — Universal veterans will no doubt fondly recall the E.T. Adventure that closed in the early 2000s — will be pleased to see that some old tricks can still feel new.
“This is something we haven’t done a lot,” Corfino says. “You can take a look at our rides and attractions, and we don’t really have 64 animated characters that you’re that close to. Yet you want to pet these. You want to be around them.”
You may also come home and wish you could teach your cat some jazz licks on the piano.
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